You Don’t Actually Want A 6-Hour Workday

Danielle Beurteaux

Black businesswoman checking the time on wristwatch in corridorA recent piece in Fast Company’s co.Exist site garnered much attention. The article was an overview of a handful of Swedish companies that have opted for shorter workdays with the aim of improving employee work-life balance. As one CEO told FastCo., “I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think.”

A few private and public entities in Sweden have been experimenting with this for a while, and from an employee standpoint, the results look good: happier on the job, more energy, improved on-the-job performance. In fact, there’s plenty of research that supports the idea that shorter workdays and improved engagement and productivity are connected.

So while it’s not quite all of Sweden (actually, far from the majority, but let’s not be picky) that’s turning to a shorter workday, the piece certainly brings up a good point. When will other nations follow Sweden’s civilized lead, as we have done with flatpack, self-assembled furniture and pop music?

But do we really want a six-hour workday? Propelled and enabled by the digital economy, coupled with our increasingly global lives, a fixed workday is becoming less and less practical. What we might end up adopting is the adaptable workday, where accomplishments are valued over time clocked. You might not want a six-hour day as much as a day tailored to what you need. Sometimes that might be five hours, others, eight hours. But it could be quite a while before we get there, because we’re too focused on hours.

How much do we actually work?

One Gallup poll found that found that adult Americans work 47 hours a week, on average. Therefore, we can make the case that Americans work more than other, comparable nations. However, this was a telephone survey of fewer than 2,000 people. Self-reporting isn’t always the most accurate means of gathering information.

Many of us think we work a lot – more than ever – but one researcher will tell you that isn’t actually the case. John Robinson found that we think we work five to 10% longer than we actually do. One reason he offers as to why many of us have a hard time keeping track – this obviously doesn’t include many of us who work in very scheduled environments – is that we no longer have to clock in and clock out, thus making it difficult to actually judge. Also, the rise of salaried positions, which aren’t legally required to pay for overtime, in lieu of hourly positions, which are, has contributed to our expanding workweek.

How much time at work do we spend working, vs. on personal things? Here’s some figures on what we’re really doing at work.

One of the reasons that the Swedish six-hour workday has been a success is because employees agree to minimize their time engaged in non-work related activities.

Only when employers (and employees) stop equating hours-at-desk with productivity and success will we experience any appreciable change in the idea that a longer workday and/or work week is the superior work model. The workday or week should be long enough to get done what really needs to be done, and that’s it.

Even though flexible workdays have been proven effective, as has giving employees the option to work at home, there’s a reluctance to institute these as policy. And that’s not just on the part of employers; some employees don’t want to work a shorter day or week, either.

So until we all get the workdays that we actually need, take heart: many of us are already working a six hour day – we just tell ourselves and everyone else otherwise.

Learn how to get more done in less time – without losing your sanity – in 5 Ways To Increase Productivity And Still Be Happy.


Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.