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The Workplace Policy of Our Dreams

Photograph by Twenty20

Work smarter, not harder, right? Everyone seems to think so, though few workplaces—and certainly not American company culture—have made this a priority. Data from the International Labour Organization shows that Americans work longer hours than almost every other industrialized country: 137 more hours per year than workers in Japan, 260 more than workers in the U.K. and 499 more hours than workers in France.

Americans also work without legally required sick days or vacation time or maternity or paternity leave. But that's a good thing for the country's bottom line, right? Swedes think that might not quite be true.

And eldercare home decided to cut back the work day from 8 to 6 hours, while keeping pay the same. What they found was better, more rested workers, less turnover (which is expensive for companies) and happier clients—in this case, senior citizens who felt better cared for.

This Swedish group's experiment comes as no surprise to researchers who study the American workplace and policies. Today.com reported on an April 2015 study by Erin Reid, a Boston University professor, who found "managers couldn't tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to." Conclusion? Working more doesn't mean working better.

It can also be counterproductive. In his 2013 paper "The Productivity of Working Hours," Stanford University's John Pencavel found worker productivity decreases after 50 hours of work in a week. The effect is so pervasive that 70 hours of work in a week produces the same outcomes as 55 hours of work.

While some might conclude the whip needs to start cracking around hour 56, those interested in long-term solutions that better everyone might think this information is the foundation for radical change in the workplace and one that could lead us to answer "can women have it all?" or, at the very least, "is there any way to make me suck as a mom/employee/citizen less?" affirmatively.

A shorter workday means employees can have a life. No need to cause workplace rancor from ducking out to the kids' soccer game. Now school dropoff and pickup can happen during more humane hours.

And everyone could get more sleep.

Lisa Horn, co-leader of the Society for Human Resource Management's Workplace Flexibility Initiative, told Today that shorter workdays mean no one gets shortchanged, since employees would get a life outside the office and workplaces would get the best work hours from employees.

Shorter workdays would also likely mean more women staying in the workplace after having children. It could mean more moms returning to high-powered careers once their maternity leave is up.

Everyone's trying to do their best. It turns out, doing our best doesn't take as long as we thought.

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