A controversial experiment with a six-hour workday in one of Sweden’s largest cities wrapped up this week with a cheerful conclusion: Shorter working hours make for happier, healthier and more productive employees.

There’s just one catch. The practice is too expensive and unwieldy to become widespread in Sweden anytime soon.

The two-year trial, which took place in the southern city of Gothenburg, centered on a municipal retirement home where workers were switched to a six-hour day, from eight hours, with no pay cut. Seventeen new nursing positions were created to make up for the loss of time, at a cost of around 700,000 euros, or $738,000, a year.

Although it was small, the experiment stoked a widespread discussion about the future of work, namely whether investing in a better work-life balance for employees, and treating workers well rather than squeezing them, benefits the bottom line for companies and economies.

“The trial showed that there are many benefits of a shorter working day,” said Daniel Bernmar, the leader of the Left party on Gothenburg’s City Council, which had pushed for the experiment. “They include healthier staff, a better work environment and lower unemployment.”

But the high price tag, and political skepticism about the practicality of a shorter workday, was likely to discourage widespread support for taking the concept nationwide.

“The government is avoiding talking about the issue,” Mr. Bernmar said. “They’re not interested in looking at the bigger picture.”

While a growing number of countries and companies are studying the concept of employee happiness, the idea of improving it through shorter work hours has by no means gained broad traction. In Gothenburg, the City Council’s conservative opposition parties derided the experiment as a utopian folly and sought to kill it, citing high costs for taxpayers and arguments that the government should not intrude in the workplace. The current government is also not backing a shorter workweek.

Even the handful of progressive political groups aligned with Mr. Bernmar’s Left party have not made a six-hour workday in Sweden a priority in their platforms. Nor have large Swedish companies, including multinationals active around the world, embraced the idea. Other Swedish towns that previously conducted limited experiments with a shorter public-sector workweek eventually abandoned the concept, citing high costs and flawed implementation.

A similar model in France has been controversial for more than 15 years, ever since a Socialist government made a 35-hour workweek mandatory.

François Fillon, a conservative politician who is considered the front-runner to become France’s new president in elections this May, has vowed to kill it if he wins. Companies of all sizes in France have complained repeatedly that the short workweek requirement has damaged competitiveness and generated billions in additional costs. French unions defend the measure as protecting workers from employers who might otherwise return to more onerous workplace conditions.

Still, some large companies are beginning to explore the argument that happy workers may make better, more productive employees.

Amazon, Google and Deloitte recently began experiments to compress the 40-hour week into four days for some employees. Amazon, which has come under fire for encouraging employees to work long hours, announced last summer that it would test a 30-hour workweek for a small group of employees and managers, giving them 75 percent of their current pay but leaving them with the same benefits as other workers.

In the experiment at the Gothenburg retirement home, employees reported working with greater efficiency and energy when their hours were cut to six from eight a day. They called in sick 15 percent less than before and perceived their health to have improved at least 20 percent, according to a preliminary review issued last year.

At a nearby municipal retirement home, where a control trial left working conditions unchanged, employees reported increased blood pressure and said they perceived no improvement in their health, peace of mind or alertness, the review showed. A final report is scheduled to be released in March.

The program increased Gothenburg’s costs by 22 percent, mostly to pay for new employees. But around 10 percent was offset by reduced costs to the state from people being taken off the unemployment rolls and paying taxes into the system, rather than receiving state subsidies, Mr. Bernmar said.

Modest experiments are moving ahead in a handful of small towns in Sweden, mostly in the public health care sector, to see if the results from Gothenburg can be duplicated. This year, four additional Swedish municipalities are expected to start research programs.

A small but growing number of private Swedish companies, mainly technology start-ups, are also dabbling with the concept, following the lead of some established companies, including a Toyota service center in Gothenburg that has successfully operated on a six-hour day for more than a decade.

The bigger issue, Mr. Bernmar argues, is whether policy makers are willing to explore a connection between human happiness and health and productivity. Despite arguments that governments have no business in setting happiness as a public policy goal, leaders in several countries, including Italy, Japan and Qatar, are increasingly paying attention to the concept.

The question, Mr. Bernmar added, was “should we work to live, not live to work?”

This article was sourced from http://fatal-news.com