Oct 11th, 2015, 12:19 AM

What We Can Learn from Sweden's Six-Hour Workdays

By Rachael Fong-Gurzinsky
Sweden, currently in the running for happiest country in the world. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Nordic country is experimenting with six-hour work days -- Americans should take note.

Working long and working hard are not interchangeable. It is an unfortunate reality that American culture strongly reinforces the idea that work defines us, and that leisure and relaxation come as a sort of reward for working hard. We live for the weekends; we say, “I earned this drink,” after a particularly difficult project or client presentation. Sweden, currently in the running for happiest country in the world, is experimenting with six-hour workdays, and America should pay attention.

The six-hour workday, on trial in Sweden now with some municipal employees, strives to produce an array of positive outcomes. For one, Swedish employees will have more time to spend with family and on leisure activities of their choices. The time spent at work will be more productive with less time to waste on personal activities like checking personal email, online shopping, and conversing with coworkers to fill a full eight-hour work day. Money will be saved by cutting back on electricity and other expenses. Employees will have improved physical and mental health by sleeping more and partaking in more physical activity with the extra two hours outside of work each day.

On average, Americans spend 47 hours a week working. According to the 2014 Conference Board Satisfaction survey, for the eighth year in a row, less than 50 percent of Americans are happy with their career and find fulfillment in the work they do. This paradox amazes me. How do we, as Americans, allow our capitalist society to convince us that work is more valuable than happiness?

What bothers me most about a 40 plus-hour work week is the lack of time devoted to activities that promote a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. We are told from a young age that we need to discover our passions. It could be writing music, playing sports, or saving the planet. We are encouraged to practice every day, and develop these skills, but I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons. Starting in high school, American students begin to build their résumés. They take up hobbies, join clubs at school, volunteer during their summer breaks: anything that will make them marketable to future employers. Being passionate and well-rounded are skills deemed valuable for almost any job, but upon entering the workforce, these hobbies and skills fall second in priority behind job responsibilities.

I feel the influence of an overworked American society most when I travel. In 2012, I visited Budapest and indulged in an afternoon spent at the famous bathhouses. What struck me and my American counterparts most was the idea that Hungarians devote hours to unwinding and relaxing at these public spas. I remember feeling almost uncomfortable by the lack of activity, and had a hard time not focusing on the next event of the evening. Even a five-day trip to visit my grandma across the country induces anxiety. What will my daily schedule be? Will I be using my time well? What will my work inbox look like when I get back?

Americans have become “work martyrs,” putting their job before all else. A 2013 study showed that Americans had sacrificed $52.4 billion in time-off benefits and the average number of vacation days taken per year had dropped from 20.3 in 2000 to only 16. 

There is an overpowering mindset in the United States that if you don’t work long hours, you don’t appear to be working hard. Particularly in agency settings, it is often times frowned upon to leave early, even if all tasks are completed for the day. Time is wasted in the office when it could be spent in much more beneficial ways.

Millennials, myself included, have a tendency to live for a future self. Whether it’s getting through the work week to have fun on the weekend or getting through a career to enjoy a life of retirement, we have it in our mind that there is something better ahead. As the average American retirement age increases, I fear that unless we take a lesson from Sweden’s book, we’re setting ourselves up for a lifetime of work and disappointment.