Why do we work so many hours? I mean beyond the obvious answer that the dictatorial employment relationships of capitalism force us to on pain of unemployment. Working hours declined from the inhuman work weeks of the industrial revolution until the mid-20th century, when the hours we work leveled off; in more recent years work hours have been increasing.
It certainly isn’t because productivity has plateaued. On the contrary, advances in machinery and computerization make us more productive than ever before. So why do we still work an eight-hour day after all these decades? (Or more than eight hours in many cases, and not necessarily with extra pay for office workers receiving a flat salary.) An eight-hour day was an outstanding achievement of social movements from the 19th century, when work days lasted 10 and 12 hours.
With the advancements in productivity over the years, we could certainly work fewer hours and still provide all that is necessary. Why not a six-hour day? Or less? In Sweden, there are ongoing experiments with six-hour work days, which so far have met with success. Not surprisingly, given the one-sidedness of workplace relations, these experiments are being done in the name of “greater productivity.” In other words, the standard is to be: Will this be good for the boss’ profits? That it might be good for the workers is part of the equation, but even this is commingled with the idea that rested workers will be more productive workers and thus more profitable for bosses.
Let’s first examine six-hour work days on these capitalist terms. The issue of how much productivity can be extracted out of workers, interestingly, is more explicitly stated in a test case of public workers than it is for private employers, in part due to right-wing opposition. In Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, two groups of municipal workers are part of a test in which one set will work six-hour days with full pay and the other set continues to work a standard eight-hour day. The hope is that a shorter day will reduce sick leave, boost efficiency and ultimately save money, according to a report in the Stockholm newspaper The Local. A Gothenburg deputy mayor, Mats Pilhem of the Left Party, said:
“We’ll compare the two afterwards and see how they differ. We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days.”
One group of public workers on six-hour days are nurses at an elder-care facility. This experiment is to continue until the end of 2016. Fourteen new staff members were hired to cover the lost hours, but a consultant told The Guardian that the nurses “are less stressed and have more time for the residents.” The city government is closely monitoring the experiment to see if the quality of service is higher with the six-hour work day. Nurses report having more energy at work because they are no longer exhausted from longer days of work, and a Left Party member of the Gothenburg council said quality of life for the employees should also be a consideration. He said:
“Not everything is about making things cheaper and more efficient, but about making them better. Under the Conservative-led coalition government in Sweden from 2005 to 2014 we spoke only about working more, and more efficiently — but now we want to discuss how to survive a long working life so we don’t destroy our bodies by the time we are 60.”
Not an unreasonable thought.
Private employers see benefits to shorter day
In the private sector, a Toyota service center in Gothenburg switched to a six-hour work day in 2002, with no cut in pay, and reports that its profits are up thanks to more efficient use of the center’s machinery. The Swedish Internet company Brath reports strong growth in revenue and profits using a six-hour work day. The company’s chief executive officer, Maria Bråth, believes that employees with time for the rest of their lives are more productive employees:
“That we have shorter days is not the main reason people stay with us, they are the symptom of the reason. The reason is that we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritize their time with the family, cooking or doing something else they love doing. … Another big benefit is that our employees produce more than similar companies do. We obviously measure this. It hasn’t happened by itself, we’ve been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in 6 hours than comparable companies do in 8. We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in 8 hours straight. 6 hours is more reasonable, even though we too, of course, check Facebook or the news at times.”
At the other extreme, working more than 40 hours per week is detrimental to physical and mental health. A study published earlier this year in The Lancet found that people working 55 hours per week had a 33 percent greater risk of a stroke than those who worked 35 to 40 hours per week and a higher risk of heart disease. This study analyzed more than 600,000 individuals, through data drawn from 20 studies, in several countries.
Studies conducted in the early 20th century, as the working day was progressively shortening toward the eight-hour norm, that productivity was actually greater with a shorter day. For example, the 1913 book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency by Hugo Münsterberg, regarded as a pioneer in applied psychology, summarizing the results of various factory studies, stated:
“It was found that everywhere, even abstracting from all other cultural and social interests, a moderate shortening of the working day did not involve loss, but brought a direct gain. The German pioneer in the movement for the shortening of the workingman’s day, Ernst Abbé, the head of one of the greatest German factories, wrote many years ago that the shortening from nine to eight hours, that is, a cutting-down of more than 10 per cent, did not involve a reduction of the day’s product, but an increase, and that this increase did not result from any supplementary efforts by which the intensity of the work would be reinforced in an unhygienic way. This conviction of Abbé still seems to hold true after millions of experiments over the whole globe.”
It is hardly a revelation that a tired workforce is going to make more mistakes and be subject to more accidents. The common belief by bosses that it is cheaper to force overtime on current workers, even in those cases where it must be paid when employment laws or union contracts can’t be evaded, than to hire new workers to handle increasing workloads isn’t necessarily true. Beyond the benefits to productivity or employer satisfaction, working fewer hours would be a partial compensation for pay that has badly lagged increases in productivity since the 1970s.
We produce more but don’t earn more
This pattern is persistent throughout the world. It has been in place since the early 1970s in the United States and although a more recent phenomenon elsewhere in the world’s advanced capitalist countries, workers everywhere suffer from stagnant wages while producing more. U.S. workers on average earn nearly 12 dollars per hour less than they would if wages had kept pace with productivity gains since 1973. Canadian workers earn on average 11,000 dollars per year less then they would if if wages had kept pace with productivity gains since 1980. Other studies demonstrate lags in wages versus productivity in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
The bottom line is that we work more hours because bosses can extract more from us, even if they don’t extract as much as they believe they do when we are pushed beyond an eight-hour day. That a handful of bosses have the foresight to see that more profits can come from shorter work days does nothing to change that basic capitalist equation. Profits ultimately derive from the difference between what we are paid and the value of what we produce — the drive to increase this difference underlies both the stagnant pay of recent decades and the accelerating shifting of production, both manual and office work, to locations with ever lower wages and weaker regulations.
What if we worked for ourselves instead? If shorter work days are beneficial to working people — and reduce unemployment by requiring more workers to carry out necessary work — why shouldn’t this be widely implemented? So far, the discussion around the length of the working day has centered around what is best for bosses, as would be expected under capitalism. (And, make no mistake, Sweden is a capitalist country, albeit one that ameliorates some of capitalism’s harshness more than most others countries.) What if the workers ran the company themselves, or managed a public enterprise themselves?
A cooperative enterprise could similarly reduce the work day or possibly even more since it wouldn’t have to generate a large profit for a boss or, in the case of larger enterprises, for the top executives and shareholders. The steady increase in inequality, the immense fortunes held by the world’s billionaires that are far beyond any reasonable possibility of useful investment, the trillions of dollars stockpiled by multi-national corporations, and the immense waste of advertising and planned obsolescence attest to the fact that we work beyond what is necessary to meet human need.
If the economy were organized on the basis of an economic democracy — in which production is oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital — the work day could reasonably be well less than eight hours. Economic democracy can be defined as where everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.
By no means is anything written in this article intended to be an argument against shorter, more humane working hours or higher pay today. But as such struggles intensify, as they must, they can help us move beyond reforms that somewhat lessen our exploitation to ending exploitation. If a six-hour work day is better for us, why not have more of the benefits accrue to those who do the work and to the community that supports that work?