Debunking the myth: how long is the ideal working day?

With lots of provocative articles currently circling the internet about work hours, here at Spotcap we were curious to find out just how much is ideal for both business and employees, and how this affects small and medium-sized businesses.

Of course, being a SME means that at times, you can be tight on finance. Managing a business, you want your employees to be intrinsically motivated and to work hard for your business. What you don’t want is your staff wasting time, or spending time doing things they shouldn’t be doing. It’s a fine balance: too little work and employees can find themselves unmotivated and inefficient, whilst an overworked employee can often become stressed, affecting their ability to perform in the workplace.

So how can you approach the topic of ideal working hours? Let’s have a look at different cultures, their working hours and their work performance.

Global trends: Europe


To run through a few ways different cultures have approached the way they work, we’ve looked at countries that have high satisfaction in both their work-life balance.

The working day length discussion arose in Sweden after some Swedish startups decided to amend their employees’ workdays to a mere six hours. When you consider Sweden’s high OECD average, this business decision is interesting. So, did it work? What happens if we decrease the amount of working hours in a typical day? Do employees become more efficient? Or do they get less done?

Scandinavia’s obsession with a work-life balance creates for an interesting experiment in discovering just how many hours should exist in the ideal working day.

The six-hour day isn’t a new concept in Sweden, with many companies opting to take this route for better health and wellbeing. In fact, the trend is sweeping across Europe and making waves in the business sector internationally. The OECD specifies in their report that only 1% of Swedes are working 50 or more hours per week, where as in Australia that figure sits around 13%. Additionally, the OECD Better Life Index indicates that 19 of the top 20 in the work-life rankings are European, proving Europe’s ability to mix work and play – and still remain an economic powerhouse.

The situation here at home


So it seems to be working for Europe, but how about Australia and New Zealand? Well, we rank pretty poorly, being 29 and 30 respectively, in the tallied total of 38 countries.

Our lives are statistically speaking, heavily leaning towards work, with the OECD work-life balance findings indicating that we again score poorly in time spent devoted to leisure and personal care.

If we look at both possibilities on a realistic level, there are upsides and downsides to working less, and each should be analysed according to the circumstances of the business. However, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to each that should be examined before a business makes a decision.

Let’s compare…


Advantages of increasing working hours:

  • More hours to complete tasks given
  • More contactable hours

Disadvantages of increasing working hours:

  • A build up of resentment due to less personal time
  • Stress associated with being overworked
  • Greater HR costs incurred

Advantages of decreasing working hours:

  • Employees become more efficient, as there is less time to complete set tasks
  • Increase in morale and thus intrinsic motivation
  • Lower staff turnover

Disadvantages of decreasing working hours:

  • Fewer hours to complete set tasks
  • Can result in a lower quality of work



So the comparisons are pretty clear, Europe clearly has a different structure that weighs more heavily towards having more personal time, with a solid focus on wellbeing, Whilst Australia and New Zealand tend to focus more on completing tasks and general business efficiency. These two approaches both have a clear upside and downside to each, but in order for businesses to work toward maximum efficiency, businesses should analyse their own employee morale and satisfaction. If it becomes the case that employees are rundown, then maybe it is time to drop billable work hours down an hour or two, or simply increase lunch breaks by 15 minutes.

It’s the small things that combine to make a cohesive work environment… but every now and then you need to just give your brain a break!

As the shorter working day has taken off in Europe, it is something that is definitely worth thinking about for small businesses in Australia and New Zealand. Depending on your industry and work demands, could you get more out of your employees if work hours were adjusted?