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Would Sweden’s 6-hour Work Day Succeed In Australia?

On paper Sweden’s six-hour work day at full pay improves employee engagement, productivity and work-life balance. Kate Jones looks at whether the policy would work in Australia.


By Kate Jones

If the theory that happier workers are more productive is true, Sweden’s forward-thinking business community could be on to a winner with the six-hour working day. In the progressive town of Gothenburg – Sweden’s second largest city – employees across the health, public sector and automotive industries work six-hour days on full pay.

But could such a scheme work here in Australia?

With so many Australians working unpaid hours and suffering poor work-life balance as a result, there is much to like about the six-hour day, says Tarran Deane, chief executive leadership development company Corporate Cinderella.

“What employee wouldn’t want to get paid for eight hours work and only have to front up for six hours a day?” she says.

“There is a lot of incentives for the individual employee and of course, a greater work-life balance.

“From an employer’s perspective, I think it could only work through a changed management process and an opportunity to run a pilot to contextualise the working hours for each different situation.”

“Both employees and employers increasingly recognise that workplace flexibility is a door that swings both ways.”

Rolling out a six-hour work day would be a massive cultural shift for Australians. Yet demands for more personal time and less working hours were behind the eight-hour day movement in 1856 when workers won the right to have eight hours to work, eight for recreation and eight for rest.

Yet critics of the six-hour day say more work would be crammed into shorter hours, making workers stressed rather than happier.

Future trends analyst Michael McQueen says at face value the scheme seems to benefit employees more than employers, but this wouldn’t be the case in practice.

“It’s much like having a hectic four-day work week whenever there is a public holiday – squeezing the same volume of work into a shorter timeframe is innately stressful,” he says.

Capping work hours simply won’t work in a globalised economy and the digital age, says McQueen.

“This is unlikely to ever occur in Australia and I believe this is not a bad thing,” he says. “Smart organisations and leaders recognise that productivity is about outcomes and not the number of hours someone spends at work. Some days and weeks, you will get things done quickly and flexible work cultures allow for shorter days or working from home when outcomes are being met. Other weeks, you need to burn some midnight oil to meet a deadline.

“Both employees and employers increasingly recognise that workplace flexibility is a door that swings both ways.”

“As we’ve got better with technology we’ve become far more productive, so we should be able to use technology to decrease working hours as well as increase overall productivity.”

Supporters of the six-hour day say an increasingly automated future means there soon won’t be enough work to employ people for eight hours a day. With technology making the nation’s workforce far more efficient, there’s good reason to believe a six-hour day will be the way of the future.

Professor Peter Gahan, from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, has been following trials of the six-hour working day in Gothenburg since the town’s Toyota service centre introduced the concept in 2003. The company has reported happier staff, a lower staff turnover rate and an increase in profits.

Toyota’s success prompted other Swedish businesses, including nursing homes, a hospital and start-ups, Brath and Filimundus, to cut working hours.

Prof Gahan says adapting the six-hour day to Australian workplaces is a question of working out costings alongside technology and staffing arrangements.

“There’s no reason why it can’t work, why it should be bad for the economy,” says.

“As we’ve got better with technology we’ve become far more productive, so we should be able to use technology to decrease working hours as well as increase overall productivity.”

Follow Kate Jones on Twitter: @kateljnes

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