More Propaganda for Working Shorter Hours with No Consequences

Everyone wants to work shorter hours; the trick is to convince people that they won’t lose income.

I saw this Guardian story being trumpeted over the internet this weekend: “Efficiency up, turnover down: Sweden experiments with six-hour working day.”

A Swedish retirement home may seem an unlikely setting for an experiment about the future of work, but a small group of elderly-care nurses in Sweden have made radical changes to their daily lives in an effort to improve quality and efficiency.

In February the nurses switched from an eight-hour to a six-hour working day for the same wage – the first controlled trial of shorter hours since a rightward political shift in Sweden a decade ago snuffed out earlier efforts to explore alternatives to the traditional working week.

Why should society even have a “traditional working week” set by statute? There may be plenty of businesses that operate most efficiently with six-hour shifts while others might be better with ten-hour shifts. The businesses and industries should figure that out for themselves rather than merely suggest from their experience what must be imposed on all of society by the civil government.

The article spouts nonsense. For example:

At Svartedalens, the trial is viewed as a success, even if, with an extra 14 members of staff hired to cope with the shorter hours and new shift patterns, it is costing the council money. Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care at the home, says staff wellbeing is better and the standard of care is even higher.

That’s nice but the Swedish medical system is mostly a government bureaucracy. These are the areas where price “doesn’t matter” because the industry is insulated from market forces by tax revenues and even more by public debt. I’m sure Greece could have tried similar experiments a few years ago and claimed success. But eventually the financial problems refuse to stay hidden.

The article quotes Roland Paulsen, a researcher in business administration at the University of Lund: “For a long time politicians have been competing to say we must create more jobs with longer hours – work has become an end in itself.” That is just nonsense. If work was an end in itself then people would work for free. Work has always been a means of reaching goals. For the wage earner, the goal was exchanging labor for income in order to be able to purchase needs and desires. For the entrepreneur, the goal was producing a good or service that the public wanted to buy.

Politicians just get in the way.

At Toyota service centres in Gothenburg, working hours have been shorter for more than a decade. Employees moved to a six-hour day 13 years ago and have never looked back. Customers were unhappy with long waiting times, while staff were stressed and making mistakes, according to Martin Banck, the managing director, whose idea it was to cut the time worked by his mechanics. From a 7am to 4pm working day the service centre switched to two six-hour shifts with full pay, one starting at 6am and the other at noon, with fewer and shorter breaks. There are 36 mechanics on the scheme.

“Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” Banck says. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs – everyone is happy.” Profits have risen by 25%, he adds.

Once again this shows that businesses should be permitted to figure out the optimal arrangements. But if Sweden “moves to a six-hour work day, many of these advantages to these Toyota service centers will evaporate. The only reason it is easier to recruit the best people and there is low turnover is because they are offering more pay for less work. If everyone is forced to offer the same arrangements, then they will lose this benefit.

The problem here is similar to what Mark Horne critiqued about using The Gap and Costco as arguments for raising minimum wage. Those businesses operate on a mode of wanting to recruit better workers and retain them. The moment you raise the minimum wage for everyone they lose those benefits unless they start paying still more. Yet everyone mindlessly repeats the mantra that, if paying more benefits Costco, all businesses will benefit when they pay the same higher wage.

Likewise the Guardian keeps praising the advantage of being able to hire the best and retain the best without seeming to notice that this advantage disappears if you universalize the six-hour work week.

Martin Geborg, 27, a mechanic, started at Toyota eight years ago and has stayed there because of the six-hour day. “My friends are envious,” he says. He enjoys the fact that there is no traffic on the roads when he is heading to and from work. 

So, if everyone did it, Geborg might have moved on. His friends wouldn’t be envious and none of them would be enjoying the absence of traffic because they would all be in the same work cycle.

For Maria Bråth, boss of internet startup Brath, the six-hour working day the company introduced when it was formed three years ago gives it a competitive advantage because it attracts better staff and keeps them. “They are the most valuable thing we have,” she says – an offer of more pay elsewhere would not make up for the shorter hours they have at Brath.

It is great to see evidence that businesses should be permitted to offer employees the work shifts they think are best (and leave people free to decide to work under those conditions or not). It is frustrating to see that evidence twisted into an argument for a universal six-hour workday that would destroy all the benefits that are listed.

But that’s how propaganda for regulations works.