Finland Experiments With a Six-Hour Work Day

Family Friendly Policy?

Ellen Mutari and Deborah M. Figart

This article is from the September/October 2001 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the September/October 2001 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

"I feel that I have more time for my family," said a child care teacher in Finland, in response to a shift to a 6-hour working day. Being less hurried, she added, had an enormous impact on everything in life. Her reactions were echoed by dental nurses, physiotherapists, child care assistants, and other public servants across Finland. Between 1996 and 1998, the Finnish state experimented with a 30-hour work week. Workers who participated said they enjoyed more time for other activities: 80% said they had more time for rest and relaxation; 75%, for spending with family and children; 72%, for fitness and exercise; and 68%, for housework. Overall, employees who worked fewer hours reported less conflict between work and family responsibilities.

Even though the Finnish experiments were not driven by the aim of furthering gender equity, they contain important lessons—both positive and negative—for achieving that goal. Enabling people to balance work and family responsibilities is a prerequisite for gender equity. While the United States and many other countries have promoted part-time jobs for mothers, this strategy tends to create female job ghettoes, such as part-time and low-paid jobs in clerical, cleaning, and food-service occupations. In contrast, shortening the work week for everyone creates good jobs for working people, men and women. Reducing the standard work week can alleviate the stress of overwork, allowing everyone to combine paid employment with fuller and more satisfying lives.


In recent years, many employers in the advanced industrial countries have been claiming that, in order to remain competitive, they must operate on a "24/7" basis (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). More and more, they are insisting on flexibility in how they schedule work; it is no longer enough, they say, for employees to work just Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Throughout the European Union (EU), employers have increased weekend hours, part-time employment, and temporary work. In 1993, the EU even issued a directive setting the work week at a maximum of 48 hours—but allowing the maximum to be averaged over time. For example, employees can work 60 hours one week and 36 hours the next. Since the averaging can occur over a 6-month to one-year period, employees can work long hours for many weeks before working a stretch of shorter hours. In the United States, employers have dramatically increased the use of overtime; as a result, many U.S. workers are regularly clocking over 40 hours of work per week.

These flexible hours options are typically implemented in a gendered way. For example, in the United States and Europe generally (though not in Finland), employers in male-dominated industries usually require employees to work overtime, while employers with primarily female work forces tend to run part-time and weekend shifts. These differing approaches reinforce the unequal sexual division of labor in the household. Since women are spending fewer hours at paid work, there is less pressure on men to share the unpaid household labor. These arrangements also perpetuate wage inequality between men and women, since part-time jobs tend to pay less than full-time work. Like other European countries, Finland is facing pressure to reduce and reorganize paid work time. The impetus for change has come both from employers, who want to use buildings and equipment more fully, and from unions, which are advocating job creation through shorter work hours. So far, the two sides have negotiated flexible scheduling arrangements through collective bargaining at the national level. As part of the shift toward flexibility, employers have gained more freedom to negotiate work time issues at the local and firm levels.

But in contrast with many other countries, Finland has coupled flexible scheduling with an ongoing commitment to full-time work for women as well as men. The proportion of women in Finland who work full-time is far greater than in other wealthy industrial societies. In Finland, 87% of employed married women work at full-time jobs, compared with only about 66% in Denmark and France, 55% in Sweden and Germany, and less than half in the United Kingdom. Only 20% of employed married women in the Netherlands work full time. Throughout Europe, only a small percentage of employed men (generally less than 10%) work part time, and they are usually young men pursuing education and older men nearing retirement.

What accounts for the difference? The Finnish government provides social supports that encourage women to pursue full-time rather than part-time employment. Most women return to work immediately after paid maternity leave, using state-financed child care. Schools and child care centers are organized on the assumption that both parents work full time; children are not sent home from school until the typical daytime work shift ends. (In the United States, of course, the school day usually ends at 3:00 PM, but the work day often extends to 5:00 PM, 6:00 PM, or later. The not-so-subtle message is that parenting and full-time work should not be combined.)

As a consequence of these state policies, men and women in Finland, both single and married, work about the same number of hours and participate in the labor force at about the same rate. In addition, men and women work about the same number of hours whether or not they have children. According to a recent study of married couples, Finnish men with children work three hours more per week than their single (and presumably childless) male counterparts. It is not unusual for men with family responsibilities to put in extra time at work; this happens in most industrialized countries. What is unusual is that, in Finland, women with children tend to work at their jobs one hour more per week than women without children. In other countries, women with children usually reduce their hours on the job. In addition, 83% of Finnish working women are unionized, as compared with 75% of men, again suggesting the importance for many women of paid work and their identity as workers. Nevertheless, Finnish women continue to perform the bulk of the household labor, although men have increased their involvement in recent years.

These factors—state support for balancing work and family, a society in which mothers working full time is considered normal, and union representation of working women—influenced the kinds of flexible hours policies the Finnish government adopted. The work-time experiments instituted a seemingly gender-neutral scheme that reduced the length of the full-time work week for all employees. Instead of relegating women to part-time employment, they had the potential to change work norms altogether, so that it would be acceptable for all employees to work less. Yet balancing work and family was a fringe benefit of the shorter hours program, rather than a core goal.


The most notable Finnish undertakings—the so-called "6 + 6" experiments—combined longer operating hours for employers with shorter and less stressful working hours for individual workers. Usually the traditional single eight-hour shift was replaced with two six-hour shifts.

The 6 + 6 plan originated with a recession in the early 1990s, when many municipalities downsized their workforces. As a result, unemployment increased in the public sector, and the remaining employees were overworked. Unions, political parties, and the government sought a solution. Starting in the mid-1990s, the Finnish government, with some financial support from the European Social Fund (an EU program whose mission includes job creation), provided partial subsidies to municipal governments if they hired back some of their laid-off workers in conjunction with the 6 + 6 trial. The national government agreed to cover up to half of the cost of rehiring unemployed workers. The subsidies were, unfortunately, only temporary measures to stimulate employment during a period of high unemployment.

Between June 1996 and December 1998, 20 municipalities participated in the 6 + 6 plan. The new scheduling patterns were concentrated in social services and health services, especially areas such as libraries, administrative services, legal services, home health-care and dental-care agencies, and child-care centers.

As with many schemes to reduce work hours, employers and unions differed over whether compensation would be reduced along with hours or whether increased productivity would allow weekly wages to remain constant. Some municipalities held weekly wages steady, while others decreased them by as much as 10-15%. On average, employees worked 20-25% fewer hours, but their weekly wages fell by only 7%. In effect, the average worker's hourly wages increased. The additional cost to employers was partially offset by the government subsidies for rehiring workers and by increases in productivity.

Employers reported that the experiments proved beneficial, even if they had to pay some of the increased labor costs. According to University of Jyvaskyla researchers Timo Anttila, Jouko Natti, and Mia Vaisanen, most employers changed from one eight-hour shift to either two or three six-hour shifts. They found that customers were happy with extended hours of service, the efficiency and quality of services improved, and absenteeism decreased.

Women were far more likely to participate in the experiments than men. Despite women's high rate of employment in the money economy, jobs in Finland, as elsewhere, are sex-segregated. Women constituted 75% of eligible employees in the social service agencies where the experiments took place. But 94% of all employees who opted for the 6 + 6 experiment were women. Although the 6 + 6 model was not explicitly intended to facilitate a better balance between work and family life, women employees viewed this as one of the primary benefits and rushed to take advantage of the new scheme.

Although the work week for participants in the experiments averaged 30 hours, employees did not have to work a six-hour shift; in fact, only 40% actually did so. Another 35% took extra days off instead, and 21% took extra weeks off. Yet those who took the 6-hour shifts reported the most satisfaction. According to Anttila, Natti, and Vaisanen, although participants found extra days or weeks off to be "a tempting opportunity," those who took extended periods of time off found that their everyday routines remained unchanged. When the free time was distributed more evenly on a daily basis, employees found it easier to balance work and family responsibilities—especially if they had children.

According to one physiotherapist who tried the experiment, the new arrangement resulted in "big changes." Under the new system, she said, "I don't have to, like [a] maniac, rush to collect my child from care. Now I have more time for myself and [can] take care of [my] home more." Researchers Anttila and Natti found that the increased leisure was "chiefly spent in rest and recreation, time with one's children and family, domestic work and keep-fit exercises." Reduced work time, they added, "made it easier to coordinate work and family life." Finally, they noted, most participants in the experiments were less exhausted and less emotionally drained at the end of the work day.

But there were drawbacks as well. Some employees actually cited a new and more unequal division of work in the household, especially those who worked an evening shift. After they spent the morning working at home, some employees arrived at their paid jobs exhausted. One public-health dentist, who now held evening hours for patients, complained, "The more you have [to work at] evening times, the less you spend with family I see my children and family markedly less than I did before."

Also, even though the 6 + 6 scheme was presented as a new form of full-time work, women workers were afraid that it would be used as a back-door approach to extending part-time employment as a common practice. Participants made it clear that they did not want to go down the road of the part-time trap—that is, being classified as "mothers first" who only worked part-time. They worried about being stigmatized for working shorter hours and wanted to feel that they were putting in a fair day's work.

Finally the employees felt that the shorter hours were designed primarily to benefit customers. Therefore, they did not have a sense of ownership over the program. One participant reported that she was explicitly advised to downplay improved family time as a benefit of participating in the experiment: "We could not state, which I thought was stupid, that it is quite important in [the lives of] women who have family to intertwine work and family together nicely. When we applied [to the experiment] it was made clear that we should not emphasize these things. [Instead, we were advised that] customer orientation and employability were [the most] important aims."

Once the state subsidies disappeared, as the overall unemployment rate fell, many municipalities reverted back to the old work schedules and most of the newly hired workers were let go. Without the rationale of job creation, unions (and some employees) were unwilling to accept the small reductions in weekly salary that accompanied reduced hours. Even though both supervisors and employees rated the experiments positively, employers decided that the resulting increases in productivity, efficiency, and availability of services were not sufficient to absorb the increased labor costs.

The experience of women working in public services contrasts with those of a small group of mostly male manufacturing workers who also participated in 6 + 6 schemes. In the private sector, working time was reorganized without any state subsidies. Nor was job creation the motive. Employers pursued 6 + 6 (as well as 6 + 6 + 6 and 4 x 6 schemes) in order to utilize their capital equipment for longer hours without paying overtime. Employees were not asked to take cuts in their weekly paychecks, but employers did speed up the production process and eliminate some holidays. Natti and Anttila found that, because productivity increases were more dramatic in manufacturing than in services, the new schedules proved relatively cost-free for private sector employers. The same work was accomplished in less time. Unfortunately, researchers have not studied the impact of the shorter shifts on male workers' ability to balance work and family, or to participate in household labor.


In the United States, the last major push for shorter work hours occurred in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, there was a strong movement for a 30-hour work week and many companies experimented with shorter hours. One experiment with the six-hour day was launched by the Kellogg's cereal company. The objective then, like in Europe today, was to share the work in a period of economic decline. At Kellogg's, the shorter work shifts were gradually "feminized"—transformed into "women's" shifts - and lasted until the mid-1970s.

Today, Americans, on average, work longer hours than employees in any other industrialized country. Even in Japan, where long hours are considered normal, average annual hours are lower than in the United States. Both women and men in the United States work long hours. Yet the U.S. government offers little support for child-care or other services that would help American workers to balance work and family. Not surprisingly, there is renewed interest in shortening regular work hours.

As a recent study by the Families and Work Institute in New York confirms, many Americans feel overworked. Although financial considerations are part of the reason why people work longer hours, the expectations of employers, the norms for coworkers, and the structure of work are also reasons for overwork. The Institute found that 44% of U.S. employees work more hours on their primary job than they would like. Almost one in four reports working 50 hours or more per week. Women, more than men, report feeling overworked and overwhelmed by how much work they have to do. In particular, women report that they have to do too many tasks at once, and that they face more interruptions during the work day. Though the range of preferred hours is quite broad, on average, employees say they would like to work about 35 hours per week.

At the same time that U.S. workers would like shorter hours, employers here, just as in Europe, are shifting to a 24/7 economy. The Finnish effort to reconcile shorter working hours with longer operating hours is worth examining. Taking a cue from Finland, we should move toward employment policies that allow both men and women to work shorter hours at a living wage, leaving plenty of time for themselves and their families. In some cases, especially manufacturing, this can be accomplished through local collective bargaining, since productivity gains can offset costs to employers. In some cases, reductions in weekly wages borne by employees could be offset by increased government provision of services such as child care and health care. Unlike in Finland, however, we should make reconciling work and family an explicit goal of shorter work time strategies.

Ellen Mutari teaches quantitative reasoning at Richard Stockton College and is a Dollars & Sense Associate. Deborah M. Figart is a professor of economics at Richard Stockton College.

Resources: Timo Anttila, Jouko Natti, and Mia Vaisanen, "The Experiments of Reduced Working Hours in Finland: Impact on Work-Family Interaction and the Importance of the Socio-Cultural Setting," paper, 8th International Symposium on Working Time, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 14-16, 2001; Vaisanen and Natti, "The Household Working Week and Perceived Work-Family Conflict in Finnish Dual-Earning Households," paper, 8th International Symposium on Working Time, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 14-16, 2001; Nätti and Anttila, "Experiments of Reduced Working Hours in Finnish Municipalities," Journal of Human Resource Costing and Accounting, Vol. 4 (2), Autumn 1999, pp. 45-61; Lonnie Golden and Deborah M. Figart, eds.,Working Time: International Trends, Theory and Policy Perspectives, Routledge, 2000; Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Kellogg's Six-Hour Day, Temple University Press, 1996; Ellen Galinsky, Stacy S. Kim, and James T. Bond, Feeling Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2001.