Testing a six-hour work day

by Jane Clifton / 18 June, 2014
Why is it that New Zealanders put in long hours but produce comparatively little?
Cogs1Greece, on paper, is the second-hardest working country measured by the OECD, its people putting in an average of 2033 hours of toil a year.

Greece is also bankrupt.

Evidence is mounting that long hours do not equal productivity, and may even indicate the opposite. It’s one of the reasons Sweden is about to try a six-hour working day in Gothenburg with a view to making it a national policy. Swedish workers already put in considerably fewer hours than New Zealanders, but are economically considerably better off – counter-intuitive to our constant self-exhortations to “work harder!”

Productivity is complex to measure, as a person’s paid work output is affected by numerous factors, including the provision and quality of tools such as computers and machinery, skill level, general working conditions and health.

However, as the Productivity Commission found in a study last year into why New Zealand’s work output has been falling behind Australia’s for more than 40 years, longer hours on this side of the Tasman do not equate to working better. This is just one of numerous studies into the factors behind productivity that appear to undermine the old workaholic ethic. It seems the more often the time-to-productivity relationship is measured, the more likely it is to reveal an inverse correlation.

Not for this reason, but for reasons of health and safety, the United Nations has urged members to institute a legal maximum number of work hours. Our Government has declined to do this, and at least in terms of the OECD average of 1765 hours per employee per year, we are not at risk of working ourselves to death, at our average of 1739 hours.

"See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow!"

But we do have a higher-than-average count of people working 50 or more hours a week: 20% of males and 7% of females. That’s an overall 13% of over-workers, compared with the OECD average of 9%, and many more overtime hours than Australian workers clock up.

Typically, countries much wealthier than ours work considerably fewer hours. In the Netherlands – which records the OECD low of 1381 hours – four-day weeks are not unusual. Germany achieves a 70% greater GDP than Greece, despite its workforce that includes a high proportion of part-timers, working 37% fewer hours: 1396.

Confoundingly, however, shortening work hours may not be the whole answer. Sweden’s six-hour trial comes despite an abandoned 2005 experiment in the country’s most northerly town, Kiruna, which found shorter hours were putting people under too much pressure. Productivity improved, but workers were more likely to become stressed and the incidence of sickness increased.

Small wonder, then, that workplace initiatives to recognise that all work and no play make Jack a less efficient worker remain tentative. Innovations such as sleeping pods are still a fringe trend rather than a revolution. Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg, an advocate of healthy work-life balance, departs the office each day at 5.30pm. But another Silicon Valley high-flyer, Yahoo! chief executive ­Marrisa Mayer, was widely dumped on when she rescinded her employees’ right to work from home on the grounds that it decreased collegiality and creativity.

In this country, a Government desire to abolish compulsory tea breaks, leaving individual workplaces to make their own arrangements, has incited a predictable union reaction. However, in time employers and staff may reconsider such aspects of “workplace flexibility” in the face of repeated studies of humans’ concentration spans that suggest there is a limit to the duration of peak performance. Estimates range from 40 to 90 minutes, after which, without a short break, a person’s work output will suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Such studies have shown willpower can, like a muscle, be strengthened with training. But concentration, particularly that required for making multiple – even small – decisions, steadily depletes over a day.

As for the taboo about being asleep on the job, employers at the Cheltenham Science Festival in Britain this week were urged to sanction workplace naps, and to free employees to set their own optimal work hours. Vincent Walsh, a professor of human brain research at University College London, said our habit of only sleeping at night is a post-industrial revolution practice. In earlier ages it was common for people to sleep during the day and a daytime nap still suits some people.

The variation in individuals’ biorhythms and the different sleep demands people experience at different stages of life are slowly gaining recognition. Some schools have experimented with later start times for young teens, with some evidence that allowing them to sleep later helps their concentration.

Of wider concern is that, despite research showing human intelligence is improving, concentration spans may not be.

Concern about the modern attention span is the stuff of eternal intergenerational warfare, but it’s an issue being taken increasingly seriously. In 1985, cultural critic and theorist Neil Postman entered the canon of media studies literature with his controversial book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argued the move away from reading and contemplation, which he believed reached a peak in the 1800s, in favour of the electronic media and infotainment-based news services – delivered by “talking hairdos” – was making our concentration spans narrower and shallower. He portended a Brave New World society, in which people thought less, letting their rights and general intellectual development atrophy because they were perfectly happy being entertained.

A quarter of a century later, Nicholas Carr wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains – to defensive anger from internet proponents. His thesis: the net is making our reading cursory, our thinking distracted and our learning shallow. While he acknowledges that it’s too soon, given the relative youth of the internet, for researchers to tell what, if any, effect it may be having on our brains, he points to a host of indications scientists are turning up that it is having some effect. A UCLA study of the brains of three long-time net users and three people who did not use the technology found the three net users had developed distinctive neural pathways.

And don’t we all? Carr only managed to write The Shallows after isolating himself from the net and social media – and has since plugged right back in.

Arianna Huffington explains why we urgently need to audit our lives in this week's Listener cover story: Wake up worldSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

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