Are we a nation of shirkers or workers?

Richard Edgar

Former Economics Editor

Could cutting the hours in the working day increase worker productivity? Credit: Tonight

“Yesterday, I talked to my kids when they came home from school. Just being a mother, not a tired mother who sits in front of the TV.”

A rather modest boast, you might think, but for Gabriele Tikman, a surgical nurse at a hospital in Sweden, being able to help her kids with homework or tending her garden used to be beyond her after long days lifting patients and equipment in the operating theatre. She told me her team was taking an unusually high number of days off for sickness, suffered from low morale and exhaustion which meant almost a third of staff left the department each year. Worse still, the team’s bad reputation made it very difficult to find replacements.

Gabriele Tikman (right) now works less hours a day after managers had a rethink. Credit: Tonight

That changed only a few months ago after managers were forced to think creatively to halt what was becoming a crisis. They started a fascinating two year trial. Instead of making the nurses work more to bring down ballooning patient waiting times, they now work less: only six hours a day, instead of eight.

Gabriele explains how they have dropped coffee breaks and only have a short break for lunch. Apart from being reinvigorated by a shorter working day she says, the nurses now don’t waste time scrubbing up each time they head back to the operating theatre after a break – something which takes half an hour each time. So rather than spending up to two hours a day elbow deep in antiseptic suds and bristles they can spend that time at home doing things they want to do. Crucially, they still get paid the same despite spending less time at work.

Since the changes were introduced at the hospital productivity has gone up 20 percent. Credit: Tonight.

The managers at Sahlgrenska University Hospital are delighted as well. Although they have had to spend more (to create a second shift of nurses) patient waiting times have come down, staff are happy, and far from recruitment being a headache, they now have too many nurses applying for jobs on the unit. Most importantly of all, the director of the hospital, Anders Hyltander, tells me they have seen a twenty per cent rise in productivity - more operations completed in less time at work.

Mechanics at the Toyota dealership work six hour shifts

Across town, the Gothenburg Toyota dealership has long been doing something with an odd parallel. Its mechanics (nurses) have brought down waiting times for car repairs (operations) from five weeks to five days by working two six hour shifts instead of one eight hour shift. Staff get paid the same, they’re happy and so is the boss, Martin Banck. “They do more now,” he smiles. “We say that now we are more effective in six hours than in eight.” Productivity there rose by 25 per cent in the first year and a total of 40 per cent once the system bedded in.

Dealership boss Martin Banck (right) said staff are 'more effective' working six hour shifts. Credit: Tonight

It’s this last point, productivity, which is the magic ingredient that bosses and even politicians are searching for. And not just in Sweden. British productivity growth has ground to a halt since the financial crisis. Instead of becoming more efficient and more effective at work we are about 15 per cent less productive than we would have been if productivity had continued to improve at its pre-crisis rate. And that’s one reason why wages here have stagnated in recent years. Fix productivity and living standards should rise. In other words, we’d all be better off.

I put this to the Chancellor, George Osborne, asking why the UK was performing so poorly. “In the end, some economists say you’ve got to choose between productivity and jobs, and I would rather have the jobs, frankly”, he said. He’s referring to the fact that many employers decided not to make staff redundant during the recession, preferring to hang on to employees with skills even though profits were plummeting. That jobs ‘miracle’ has continued even as the economy slowly recovered. The result is that the profit - or output - of companies is attributed to lots of people, so productivity per person hasn’t grown.

He’s talked a lot about “Fixing the Foundations” of the UK, spending government money on the things we need to be more productive but critics point to delays and undelivered promises: better transport links, fast broadband, more homes where workers want to live are all on the way, we’re told, but progress is slow. Companies, too, could be incentivised to invest in new, more productive, equipment instead of (or perhaps as well as) workers - when stagnant wages make them cheap in comparison. The Chancellor told me he’s changing tack.

Not every job can be done in fewer hours - both the mechanics and the nurses we visited in Sweden have physically demanding but well-defined tasks that are disrupted by breaks. Both groups report that shorter shifts allow them to work more effectively.

“It’s not more intense, that’s not the right word,” says Magnus Wiktron, a mechanic. “It’s just the focus. You’re here to do the work and you know you can [finish] at half past twelve. That’s good, and the time flies.”

But I noticed that the bosses at both places, with broader responsibilities, still work eight hour shifts - although they rarely work more than that: the Swedes don’t admire putting in excessive hours at the office.

Britain could learn from these imaginative approaches to “deliver more for the same,” as Dr Hyltander puts it. As individuals, we still tend to focus on how long we spend doing something rather than what we actually produce. And at a company level bosses need to have the confidence to invest in new, efficient equipment and the training for staff to operate it effectively.

Finally, the government has to create the framework to allow us to be more productive as a country. There’s a lot to do - and our prosperity depends on it.

  • Tonight - Britain: Shirkers or Workers? will be broadcast at 7.30pm on ITV