Back in the nineteenth century, the union movement demanded an 8-hour workday.
Here’s the question I often pose to my students: when did the United States finally pass legislation limiting the workday to 8 hours? It’s a trick question, of course. The answer is: never.
These days, with GDP per capita having grown by a factor of ten since 1886, Americans (at least those with full-time jobs) are forced to have the freedom to work much more than 8 hours.*
But in Sweden [ht: sm], they’re experimenting with a 6-hour workday, with exactly the results one would expect: workers are happier! And new jobs were created and the quality of care has gone up!
Working eight hours a day and 40 hours a week is ingrained in us as the natural division and duration of a good, honest American work week. We take it for granted. And it’s nonsense.
Much like the two-day weekend, the eight-hour work day was a safeguard won by the labor movement to protect workers from being driven into the ground by inhumane workdays of up to 16 hours. The eight hour work day was meant to be a limit, not a goal. And certainly not an ideal.
Now, in the interest of human progress and well-being, a retirement home in Sweden is testing out six-hour work days for employees. Other businesses are taking notice. The nurses at Svartedalens care home in Gothenburg reduced their workdays from eight to six hours in February, with the same pay.
The result? Happy, energetic nurses.
Interviewed by the Guardian, an assistant nurse named Lise-Lotte Pettersson said the following:
“I used to be exhausted all the time, I would come home from work and pass out on the sofa. But not now. I am much more alert: I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life.”
Now what does this mean for employers? Naturally costs go up. The nursing home hired 14 new staff members to cover the missing hours. On the other hand they created 14 new jobs and several other hospitals in Sweden have now followed suit. Vitally, the nurses say the quality of care they’re able to provide has gone up along with morale.
*1886, for those who have forgotten, was the year of the Haymarket Square demonstration, in which workers demanded an 8-hour workday.