Just before lunchtime, I got a call from a major UK broadcaster asking if I could help out with a feature on what the producer described as “Sweden's new six-hour work day”. He said he had “spotted a story about it in the Sydney Morning Herald”.
I turned down the request politely. I usually love sharing my knowledge of Sweden and my experiences of living here when approached by global media. But on this occasion I was unable to. Because the idea that there's a been mass shift towards shorter days in my adopted home simply isn't true.
It may be factually accurate that Swedes work some of the shortest hours in Europe and savour and respect work-life balance. However among the 100 or so contacts I have built up in Stockholm over the past 13 months, not one of them works for an employer offering such compressed hours. From expats in the startup scene to Swedes with jobs in schools, media organizations or at major Nordic brands, I am unaware of anybody who gets to go home before their afternoon coffee break.
Yet, after reviewing the global press over the past few days, most people outside Sweden would, just like that British journalist, be easily forgiven for thinking that all Swedes are clocking off en masse at 3pm.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “businesses across the Scandinavian country are implementing the change so workers can spend more time at home or doing the activities they enjoy”.
Meanwhile the Science Alert website reported that “Sweden is moving towards a standard six-hour work day”.
The UK-based Independent proclaimed that the entire nation was “moving to a six-hour working day in a bid to increase productivity and make people happier”.
The list goes on.
A Swedish workplace. Photo: Henrik Trygg/TT
For those of us reading these articles in Sweden, the few examples cited by the global press were old news.
Toyota centres in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, moved to shorter days 13 years ago. A district council in Kiruna, in Sweden's far north offered 250 staff a six-hour work day in the 1980s (scrapping the method in 2005).
The most high-profile case in recent months is of a retirement home in west Sweden which started trialling a six-hour day in February, following long discussions about the experiment. A hospital in Gothenburg followed suit.
Since then a few companies have announced that they are also testing the concept, including a number of startups quite obviously hoping to make a name for themselves. These include Filimundus, an app developer based in Stockholm which must be cracking open some Swedish 'snaps' this week after being quoted by media across the globe, and Background AB, a creative communication agency in Falun, Dalarna.
Most of those trialling the idea have reported a positive impact, from increased efficiency to better communication and fewer staff sick days. So, it makes sense that other companies could soon start taking up the mantle.
But, the idea that Swedish firms are currently queuing up to offer their staff even shorter contracts than they do now is quite simply wrong.
“I'm close to hitting the wall,” sighed one Swedish media professional approached by The Local.
“I might leave the office at 5.30pm, but I am checking my emails during the evening and at weekends.”
And as for our Australian contacts working here in the Swedish capital?
“Ha ha, I read that piece in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning over breakfast…and laughed,” said Claudia Reiners, a sales manager from Melbourne who works for a fashion tech firm.
“I work probably 50 hours a week, which is more than the 40-hour work week most people have in Australia,” she added.
Meanwhile an Australian-born lawyer told The Local it was “hard to be humourous” about the false buzz around working hours in Sweden, when she'd recently found herself “writing legal memos at 1am on a Friday”.
She concluded: “There are stories of young lawyers sleeping under their desks at the big firms here just like in London or Sydney: the desks are just sleek Scandinavian ones.”