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Sweden tested out a 6-hour workday -- and it mostly worked

Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: iStock

Sweden is known for its commitment to keeping citizens happy, but a recent experiment shows boosting happiness can come at a high cost.

As part of a government study, a select group of retirement-home workers in Gothenburg, Sweden have been working just 30 hours each week for the past two years.

The results of that study, unveiled last week, were about what you’d expect — people claimed they were happier, less stressed, and enjoyed the work more.

The only downside: The schedule was a bit pricey.

The city council of Gothenburg pushed for the experiment in 2015, but Daniel Bernmar, a local politician, recently told Bloomberg that “it’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”

To give the roughly 80 workers at the Svartedalen old folks’ home more time off, the city government had to hire 17 additional people to cover the shifts. The new hires put a $738,000-sized dent in the payroll — an increase of about 22%. (Although, as Bernmar told the New York Times, lower unemployment costs offset that increase by about 10%.)

A couple other experiments in shorter work weeks are also underway in Sweden, with final results still to come.

Sub-40-hour workweeks are common in other parts of Europe — in France, workweeks are 35 hours — but that’s hardly the norm worldwide. In the US, the average full-time worker commits 47 hours to their job. In certain Asian countries, such as South Korea and Japan, the numbers are even higher.

A few large American companies have also started experimenting with shorter workweeks to see whether employees can maintain the same level of output with the added time off.

Amazon, for instance, recently began giving part-time workers (those logging only 30 hours a week) full benefits at 75% pay. And the sales and marketing company SteelHouse kicked off 2017 by announcing there will be at least one three-day weekend every month. SteelHouse CEO Mark Douglas told Business Insider in December that the next logical step will be to test out a four-day workweek.

Sweden’s experiment may throw a bit of cold water on the idea that fewer working hours are a good thing in the long run.

But Bernmar told Bloomberg that the government might be too short-sighted in its judgment about costs. A long-term benefit of shortening the workweek could be that people wouldn’t get as fatigued over the course of their careers.

Bernmar also mentioned that the experiment poses an important existential question about how a government views work. If a city government or business prizes lower expenses over increased well-being for workers, as he says Gothenburg will likely do, that sends an entirely different message than if it were the reverse.

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