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Opinion: Why Sweden's six-hour work day trial worked

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Opinion: Why Sweden's six-hour work day trial worked
A trial of a six-hour work day at a care home in Sweden gained international attention. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
06:59 CET+01:00
Swedish trials of a six-hour work day have shown that it is possible to strike a healthier balance between free time and work, according to Gothenburg city councillor Daniel Bernmar of the Left Party.

At the Svartedalen home for the elderly in Gothenburg, staff worked six-hour days for two years at full pay. At the start of the trial we could already see a less stressed, happier staff. They explained that it allowed them to provide a better level of attention for the elderly, and more time for their family, and leisure time. The elderly residents were also positive about interacting with less stressed staff and a calmer atmosphere. Both management and the staff union confirmed that standards have increased since the trial started.

The positive effects have continued. The trial was followed by researchers, who noted good results when it comes to quality, health benefits, job creation and socio-economic effects. After two years we can see that the workplace environment and health of staff has improved. For example, there has been a 10 percent reduction of people calling in sick. That's a big step, considering sick days have increased significantly in both Gothenburg and Sweden for the same work group.

Better working conditions are important in order to attract the staff numbers needed for a future with more elderly people. On top of that, the improved situation for staff has meant that the elderly received a higher quality of treatment and care. For example, the number of activities offered to them increased by 80 percent.

The care home employed 25 percent more staff to cover the work hours which were lost when the staff went down to a six hour working day. That led to a cost increase of around six million kronor ($678,636) per year. However, the study showed that around half of that cost could be covered by savings made in other areas of public finances.

Through employing more people, unemployment decreases. When unemployment decreases, so too do the costs for social security and unemployment benefit. When the number of people calling in sick decreases, so too does the cost for employers and the health service. Together, these savings cover half of the project's cost. As such, we can clearly dispel the myth which has circulated in international media that the trial became too expensive.

We have only measured the short-term impact however. Our calculations have not covered the long-term effects of an improved workplace environment and staff with better health. That could for example lead to reduced claiming of early retirement benefits, which unfortunately is common in many female-dominate jobs in this sector. As such, the cost reduction for public finances would likely be even greater.

Unfortunately, it isn't the municipality or employer which gains from the cost reductions. In Sweden, the state controls social insurance. The state would therefore be required to redistribute resources for reduced working hours to become a reality on a larger scale.

At the same time, we see more and more employers in Sweden who consider reducing working hours as the key to a healthy working life. In Gothenburg alone, there is still one trial at a hospital which has been ongoing since two years ago, and a car repair shop which has had six hour working days for over 10 years. Both have produced very good results with staff who feel better at work and have had more time for their free time.

Through the six hour working day study we have contributed to an extensive debate in which both national and international media have shown a great interest in discussing the question. In other words, it's clear the more countries than just Sweden are ready for reduced working hours, and a more future-oriented approach to working life.

This is an opinion piece written by Gothenburg city councillor Daniel Bernmar of the Left Party which was translated from Swedish.

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