Swedish Experiment

The pitfalls of a 28-hour week

Sailboat moored across from red country home and boathouse along inland waterways on the High Coast of Angermanland in Sweden
Less work in Sweden means more of this. Source: picture alliance

Germany’s metal workers’ union kicked off contract talks this week with a wish list that could make for the most difficult negotiations in years.

In addition to pay raises, IG Metall wants workers to have the option of a 28-hour work week for up to two years. Those working less to care for children or elderly relatives would even be eligible for subsidies to help offset their smaller paychecks.

Union representatives say the goal is to foster a better work-life balance for IG Metall’s nearly four million members. But the companies that employ them argue that the consequences of such a move would be crippling.

Metal industry employers warn that it would amount to a “collective cut to working hours through the back door” and estimate that it would force them to replace 200,000 jobs. With skilled laborers still hard to come by, companies would have an even harder time keeping up with surging demand.

To gain a fuller picture of how a shorter work week might play in Germany, one need only look north. Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, launched a high-profile experiment in 2015 to put the system to the test, having nurses at an elderly care facility work six-hour days for the same salary.

Bengt Lorentzon, a consultant who led the two-year project, hailed the test as an unmitigated success: Nurses were happier, less tired, and even exercised more during their free time. “The results,” he told Handelsblatt, “are brilliant.”

There was one major exception: Gothenburg’s experiment came with a price tag of some 12.5 million Swedish krona, or about 1.25 million. Earlier this year, the trial ended, and workers at the care facility went back to putting in eight hours per day.

Among the staunchest critics of the arrangement was Gothenburg’s deputy mayor Maria Rydén, a member of the center-right Moderate Party. When the city debated the issue three years ago, she calculated what it would cost to adopt the six-hour model at every elderly care facility across town. At 825 million crona, Mr. Rydén described the proposition as “unaffordable.”

Instead of relieving stress, employees were unable to finish their projects.

Other employers in Gothenburg are sticking by the model. The Sahlgrenska University Hospital has tried out a similar scheme, and more than a decade ago, a Toyota service center in the city switched to six-hour days. With two such shifts each day, the shop has ultimately been able to repair more vehicles.

Yet even in Sweden, such arrangements are rare, and companies that decide to test them out aren’t always pleased with the results. That was the case for the Erik Gatenholm, the founder of 3D bio-printing startup Cellink.

Located on the outskirts of Gothenburg, the company prints pieces of human tissue used to test drugs and cosmetics. Several months ago, Mr. Gatenholm put his staff on a six-hour workday. Yet instead of relieving stress, employees were unable to finish their projects, meaning none of them was ready to leave work after six hours.

“I essentially had to throw them out,” Mr. Gatenholm said. Cellink fell behind on its orders, so the company switched back to an eight-hour day, with workers putting in overtime as needed.

Some labor market experts, among them Alexander Spermann, argue that a decrease in working hours has to come with an increase in productivity to be sustainable. He said otherwise, paying employees the same amount for a 28-hour week would involve “extreme cost shock” for employers.

A version of this article was first published in WirtschaftsWoche, a Handelsblatt sister publication. To contact the authors: max.haerder@wiwo.de, thomas.schmelzer@wiwo.de.

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