What happens when employees work shorter hours?

What would you do with two extra hours each workday? Catch more rest? Spend more time with your kids? Finally make it to the gym? For many of the nurses in a recent Swedish study, the answer was all of the above. The 23-month experiment followed 68 nurses in two groups: one that worked a regular 40-hour week, and the other a 30-hour week. According to the Washington Post, the purpose was to determine what effects (if any) fewer hours may have on employee productivity and quality of work. Like all studies, it has its criticisms, but the results can nonetheless be used to inform employee well-being and engagement practices worldwide.

The impact on productivity and quality of work

Employers are often reluctant to reduce work hours from fear that their staff won’t be able to complete their deliverables. It may seem logical to assume everyone gets more done when more time is available to them, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite. Extra time can make people complacent and unfocused, especially if they see no advantage to finishing their work faster.

The researchers who tracked the nurses observed that they worked more efficiently with two fewer hours in their daily schedule. They grew more proficient with time management and even managed to spend more time with their patients. The nurses were also more likely to go above and beyond to provide exceptional care. One researcher commented “they had more time to sit down and listen, read a book, look at a newspaper with them, or comfort those not feeling so good.” This elevated standard of care is tremendously beneficial for patients, especially the elderly and those suffering from mental illness.

Implications for employee health

Not only did shortening the workday produce better outcomes for the patients, but it also contributed to improved employee health. It was found that nurses who worked six-hour days used 4.7% fewer sick days and were absent less often than their colleagues who worked eight hours a day. Conversely, the nurses on eight-hour schedules increased their use of sick days by over 60% during the study.

Before the trial, only one in five nurses reported feeling energetic when leaving work. This number rose to over 50% when their hours were reduced. There was also a 24% increase in the amount of exercise they did after work, which helps explain why they didn’t fall sick as often. Overall, researchers were able to prove working shorter hours resulted in employees getting sick less often, becoming more physically active, and reducing neck and back pain.

Stress levels were also significantly lowered during the trial, which contributed to improved mood and energy among the staff. The nurses claimed working fewer hours made them 20% happier, which, coupled with having more energy, allowed them to achieve better work-life balance. One nurse remarked, “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.”

Financial ramifications

It’s important to note that the nurses’ wages weren’t affected by working fewer hours.  While this made the experiment more expensive in the short run, proponents argue reduced hours would actually lower costs in the long run due to the considerable improvements in employee health, productivity, and quality of work. Employers stand to save millions of dollars in corporate healthcare costs by promoting employee well-being through initiatives like this. They can also reduce spending on recruiting and turnover by creating an enticing work environment that provides the flexibility of shortened work hours.

What this means for your organization

Of course cutting hours right off the bat isn’t feasible for most companies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve employee engagement and well-being in other ways. For example, you can keep your staff energized and productive by providing them with more vacation time, allowing them to telecommute, and offering them access to health-related resources. Millions of employees around the world use LifeSpeak to help address their well-being concerns. Our online library is packed with over 1,500 expert-led videos, podcasts, and tip sheets on a variety of topics, from mental health and nutrition to fitness, preventative health, and much more. If you’re interested in finding out how we can assist your staff, book a demo today.


Also published on Medium.