Smarter trumps harder – can less hours reduce UK’s productivity gap?

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Work smarter not harder. This is a well-known saying, but when it comes to UK business culture hard work is synonymous with long hours. But could findings from Sweden show the truth in the maxim of smarter vs harder and more importantly, show the UK the way to improve its productivity gap?

An interesting article in the Telegraph ‘Why the UK should adopt Sweden’s six-hour weekday, highlights the strategy of Sweden (the darling of the UK public policy world for new ideas – e.g., free schools) to boost its productivity by reducing the hours of workers. As the title of the article suggests, six hours is seen as the ideal amount of time to help employees procrastinate less, be more focused and live happier and healthier lives.

By the traditions of UK work culture, such a suggestion to reduce hours seems counterintuitive. It is still extremely common for people to state the long hours they have worked as a badge of honour to imply just how productive they are. But, the UK’s poor showing in productivity compared to our international rivals, shows that this burning of the midnight oil, is not having a positive effect on productivity.

Despite strong employment levels, the UK compares poorly internationally when it comes to output per worker. The UK has the second lowest productivity rate in the G7 (the seven major advanced economies) after Japan according to ONS stats. Findings such as these have lead George Osborne to describe the UK’s productivity rate as the ‘challenge of our time’. Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility also described this low rate of output per worker as the ‘biggest risk’ to the UK’s long-term economic stability.

To attempt to counter the UK’s poor productivity the government launched its productivity plan this July, Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation. This sets out a 15 point plan, centred around two key pillars, encouraging long term investment and promoting a dynamic economy. (On a quick side note, the much maligned –already- by business new Labour leader has focused on the government’s poor investment record and building an economy around dynamic growth, suggesting that productivity is likely to form the battle lines between the UK government and opposition.)

Which brings us back to Sweden. Sweden’s productivity has been rising since the 1970’s as it has reduced hours, now at 1609 annual hours per worker. France and Germany, which typically vie with the US for top spot in productivity, also work less hours than the UK (1677 hours annually), at 1473 and 1371 respectively according to 2014 OECD stats. Outside of the G7, Norway which works an annual 1427) tops productivity at 75.18 GDP hours – according to 2013 figures see here.

The point here is that the UK works greater than average hours than countries delivering better productivity. With numerous studies also showing that stress is the most common reason for people taking sick leave, the side effects of these longer hours – i.e., stress as the opposite of the healthier lifestyles less hours allow- are also seriously eroding productivity.

As such, it may be time to look more seriously at the studies and examples in countries like Sweden of the merits of reduced hours. Critics of this idea will point to the US, which sharing the UK’s Anglo Saxon culture works long hours (1789 annually) but has the highest G7 productivity rate at 31. But with more of the UK’s compatriots showing that working smarter, may beat working harder, isn’t it time we looked seriously at the potential of reduced hours to boost productivity.

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About the Author

About the Author: Crispin Oyen-Williams is the Director and Founder of Business Innovate. .

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