By: JACK M.
Go to college or university for four years, work your ass off for a subsistence wage for another four years, and those of us lucky enough to actually land a decent career are expected to put in (at least) eight hours a day. We no more question the constancy of these touchstones of today’s world than we would the sun rising in the east or summer following spring. And while a diploma or degree does occasionally pay off, the wisdom of the 8-hour workday is being questioned. It seems it’s always been this way, and always would be. But what has been standard practice for generations in our offices and factory floors is now being looked at with a bit of suspicion.
The idea of the standardized “workday” goes back a couple of centuries to the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Back then, workers were frequently and casually exploited; whatever the factory owner or landlord decided was fair was enforced, and the “employees” had little or no say in the matter. Six days a week was the norm, with workers putting in 10, 12 or even 16 hours a day. Conditions gradually improved, however, throughout the 19th century. Britain’s Factory Act of 1833, for example, limited the number of hours a child between the ages of 9 and 13 could work to 8 hours a day, and 12 hours for those between the ages of 14 and 18. In the United States, the rise of labour unions throughout the mid-19th and 20th centuries was instrumental in improving workers’ rights and conditions, but when the Ford Motor Company introduced the 8-hour workday for its employees, it became the de facto standard. That was 1914, and nothing much has changed since.
If anything, working eight hours a day is almost a luxury for some of us. In our permanently-connected and competitive Internet age, many of us take our work home with us. On the bus or subway ride to and from the office, we’re texting and e-mailing with our colleagues, and in some cases we’ve committed ourselves to being available around the clock. We’ve become virtual slaves to the workplace. But all that may soon be coming to an end.
In our permanently-connected and competitive Internet age, many of us take our work home with us, and if anything, working eight hours a day is almost a luxury.
Sweden has often been the vanguard for social innovation. It was the first country to introduce freedom of the press. It plans to be the world’s first oil-free economy and the first country to get rid of cash. And now it’s planning to abandon the 8-hour workday and replace it with a 6-hour workday. High-tech firms, manufacturers and government agencies have experimented with and adopted the shorter workday. And it’s not for altruistic or political reasons that Sweden’s workforce is moving in this direction – in addition to a generous number of statutory holidays, Swedes already get a minimum of 25 paid vacation days a year – they’re doing it because it makes sense. A recent study in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, for example, has linked the longer workday with an undeniable increase in cardiovascular disease and strokes. The study of more than 600,000 working men and women showed that workers who spent 55 hours a week (which is alarmingly common, especially in North America) were 33 percent more likely to suffer serious health problems than their counterparts who worked a “normal” 40 hours a week.
But putting aside the obvious additional healthcare costs to society incurred by longer working hours, Swedish employers who have adopted the 6-hour workday have reported an actual increase in workers’ productivity, motivation and overall job satisfaction. It’s a win-win scenario that is reinforced by studies that show that the rest of us actually spend up to three hours a day slacking off and conducting our personal business while we’re on the job. The Swedes already live longer than most of us – and North Americans in particular – and they are among the happiest as well. Maybe they’ve figured something out about the benefits of a shorter workday. Maybe the rest of us should pay attention.