By Joakim Ydebäck

When recently appointed Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin allegedly proposed to introduce six hour work days as well as four day work weeks, it made headlines all over the world. The argument was that it would give Finnish parents more time with their families. The proposal, as it turned out, was made a few months before her appointment as Prime Minister, while she still served as Minister of Transport and Communications in the former cabinet, and is not part of the current government’s official program. Despite this, a reformation of the current working hours and the way in which we work is considered ideal by some political groups. Meanwhile, others may argue against it. This has become a question that follows the classical left-right axis, where leftists are usually rather positive to such a change. 

The discussion of the length of the workday is very old. Perhaps even older than we realize. One of the first advocates for such a reform was British philanthropist and industrialist Robert Owen, who invested in several attempts to establish communities with socialist ideals in both the United Kingdom and the United States. He formulated the goal to shorten the workday to eight hours as early as 1817. The objective was: “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest.” While it was, at first, deemed a foolish socialist dream, countless labour movements worked hard to make sure that it is a standard today. Present day advocates of shorter work days want to take it a step further.

In 2015, an experiment was conducted in Gothenburg. Essentially, certain workplaces would establish a six-hour workday to see what the outcome of that would be. Primarily, elder care was targeted for the experiment. It was initiated by the Left Party which was then part of the governing red-green-pink coalition. Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left Party in Gothenburg, emphasized the positive results of the experiment: “Better work environment and health of employees is one important outcome. Another is the higher quality of care we observed in elderly care”. The nurses get a lot more time with each tenant, he explains, which raises the quality of their work as well as making them more at ease. A noticeable disadvantage is “that it comes with a price tag for the employer. This can of course be remedied by policy changes in the labour market but no such initiatives have been taken by the government”.

Though he is positive, he admits that variations may exist between different workplaces. He says that the experiment was a success but that the political question has been put on ice since the general election in 2018. The outcome saw a shift of power in Gothenburg and since Bernmar says that the reform is an ideological question, such a reform will not be implemented for the time being. The political right, he says, has opposed all types of work time reforms. When asked about the future of such a reform, he replied: “I think more and more [people] will see the benefits and the necessity of changing work conditions to attract and hold on to qualified staff. If we want a sustainable labour market, work time is one important factor.”

Those who are generally against the idea of reducing working hours for all, mostly point to the impracticalities. An employer has to hire more workers when others work less. This means that more money has to be spent by the employer to keep the ship afloat. A lot of resources would have to be concentrated on hiring new people and filling the gaps. Others point out that the length of the workday does not matter when we keep being distracted at the workplace. Lasse Rheingans, a German entrepreneur, introduced a five hour workday at his company, something that sparked a few headlines in newspapers such as the New York Times. The idea was that his employees could do eight hours (or more!) worth of work in only five, if they were not distracted by their phones, social media and endless email conversation between co-workers. Think about it for a while:  even if we do not amount to the level of productivity we have set for ourselves, why are we so determined to work a fixed amount of time each day?

It is important to remember that our work hours have been reformed before. We are lucky to live in a society where at least most professions will have us work only eight hours per day. But that is, of course, not true in all parts of the world. Perhaps we can work eight hours because some of our basic needs like clothing and food are provided by those who have to work ten or twelve hours. Not only that, but their working conditions would not have been acceptable in our Western society.  People in the developing world are still being used by their employers. Children still work for slave wages and usually for the majority of the day without the opportunity to rest. Before we can reform our way of working, we should first make sure that all workers everywhere have better rights in the workplace. Perhaps to help these people should be our primary goal before making our own lives just a little bit easier. While both reforms may be possible to implement at the same time we need to ask ourselves what seems to be most dire.

Illustration: Anna Belia

Joakim Ydebäck is studying at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. After that, his goal is to somehow make the world just a little bit better. If he were to be offered the position of foreign minister, he would not say no. His four main interests include talk radio, international opinion polls, political crises and somber jazz music.

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