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Swedish six-hour workday runs into trouble: It’s too costly

Amanda Billner

Bloomberg

| Thu, January 5, 2017 | 12:53 pm
Swedish six-hour workday runs into trouble: It’s too costly

A two-year experiment cutting working hours while maintaining pay levels for nurses at Svartedalen old people’s home in the Swedish city of Gothenburg is now nearing the end. But the city has no plans in making the measure permanent or broadening it to other facilities. (Shutterstock/File)

Swedes looking forward to a six-hour workday just got some bad news: the costs outweigh the benefits.

A two-year experiment cutting working hours while maintaining pay levels for nurses at Svartedalen old people’s home in the Swedish city of Gothenburg is now nearing the end. The take away was largely positive, with nurses at the home feeling healthier, which reduced sick-leave, and patient care improving.

But the city has no plans in making the measure permanent or broadening it to other facilities. To do that it would need much more money and even help from the national government. To cover the reduced hours for the 68 nurses at the home it had to hire 17 extra staff at a cost of about 12 million kronor ($1.3 million).

“It’s associated with higher costs, absolutely,” said Daniel Bernmar, a local left-wing politician responsible for running the municipality’s elderly care. “It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”

Swedish unemployment rate. (Bloomberg/File)

The Gothenburg experiment is just the latest in a series of shorter working day trials carried out in Sweden, a country that prides itself on its generous welfare state. The trial has been closely watched globally, with labor activists touting progressive Sweden as a role model in shortening working hours.

(Read also: France implements 'right to disconnect' from work emails)

French Debate

The debate over working hours is taking center stage in France, where Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon has vowed to scrap the 35-hour work week, which he says has “done a lot of damage.”

While historical data shows that the length of average working days has fallen in Sweden over the past century, there are currently no plans to establish six-hour working days at a national level.

Still, the added hiring by the municipality has helped the coffers of the national government by reducing unemployment costs by 4.7 million kronor during the first 18 months of the trial due to new jobs, according to the interim report.

Bernmar says he’d like to see more studies into whether an abbreviated working day could also result in long-term gains for society as a whole. One argument is that it could allow people employed in labor-intensive professions to extend their working life.

“I personally believe in shorter working hours as a long-term solution,” he said. “The richer we become, the more we need to take advantage of that wealth in other ways than through a newer car or higher consumption."

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