Imagine you had two extra hours today to spend however you pleased. What would you do with that time? Play with your kids? Work out at the gym? Sleep? For many of the nurses in a recent Swedish study, the answer was all of the above. The 23-month experiment followed 68 nurses who were divided into two groups: one on a regular 40-hour work week, the other just 30 hours per week.
The aim of this research, according to The Washington Post, was to identify how working fewer hours might affect employee productivity and quality of work. While the study has its critics, the outcomes can nonetheless be used by HR professionals to inform and improve employee well-being and engagement initiatives worldwide.
Less Turns Out to Be More
It seems like common sense that when inputs increase, so do outputs. Employers have traditionally followed this logic by assuming the longer someone is on the job in a given day, the more work they produce—but this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes the opposite happens. That’s because extra time in the workplace can make people complacent and unfocused, especially if there’s no advantage to finishing tasks faster. However, when employees are rewarded for working more quickly (e.g., being able to leave the office earlier), some surprising results emerge.
The researchers who tracked the nurses observed that the group with fewer hours worked more efficiently than the control group. It appears that having a shorter workday prompted the nurses to improve their time management skills, so much so that they actually ended up spending more time with their patients. That’s right: the nurses were more likely to go above and beyond to provide exceptional care, despite their hours being cut. It’s possible that having less time encouraged the nurses to focus on work that matters most (spending time with patients), which necessitated faster, more efficient ways of getting through other tasks, such as administrative work. 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.
What about Employee Health?
Not only did shortening the workday help patients receive better care, but it also contributed to improved employee health. The researchers noticed nurses who worked six-hour shifts used 4.7% fewer sick days and were absent less often. Conversely, the nurses on eight-hour schedules increased their use of sick days by over 60% during the study.
Just one in five nurses reported feeling energetic when leaving work before the trial began. This number rose above 50% when their hours were reduced. There was also a 24% increase in how much they exercised after work, which helps explain why they didn’t fall sick as often. Overall, the study showed working shorter hours helped employees reduce neck and back pain, avoid illness and become more physically active.
Stress levels also dropped significantly during the trial, resulting in 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 Advantages for Employers
It’s important to note that the nurses’ wages remained constant throughout the study. 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 workdays. Many forward-thinking companies already allow their staff to work remotely and/or set their own schedules. If your organization would like to attract and retain talent while improving productivity and workplace wellness, adjusting your beliefs about what constitutes a “typical” workday might be the answer.
Anna Mittag is Vice President of Operations at LifeSpeak, an employee well-being and engagement platform containing 2,000 videos, podcasts and chat sessions on topics ranging from depression, suicide prevention and sexual harassment to financial stress, marital issues and mental illness. Mittag holds B.A. and L.L.B. degrees from McGill University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @LifeSpeak on Twitter.