Health care professionals in Jorvi Hospital in Espoo in January 2020. Professor Mikko Härmä from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has reminded that it is difficult to reduce working hours without affecting productivity in labour-intensive sectors such as retail and health care. (Vesa Moilanen – Lehtikuva)

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THE FINDINGS of a British four-day work week trial are intriguing, Mikko Härmä, a research professor of health and working time at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, stated to YLE in February.

The six-month trial found that allowing employees to work one day less each week at the same pay reduced work-related stress and exhaustion without denting the productivity of companies.

Härmä told the Finnish public broadcasting company, though, that the effects of a four-day work week should be monitored for longer than six months – for one to two years – as the motivation of employees can decline after the initial excitement.

“That’d show how long productivity can stay unchanged after working hours are cut. The danger of reducing working time is that the pace of work increases as breaks and such decrease,” he explained.

The British companies that participated in the pilot did so voluntarily, meaning they may have been better equipped than the average company to adapt to a four-day work week. Härmä also pointed out that the pilot did not have a proper control group that would have allowed a comparison between participating and non-participating companies in the UK.

“It’s challenging from a research point of view if you only make comparisons to other companies involved with the trial,” he said.

Härmä, who has examined the results of numerous working hours trials, told that the trials generally find that a shorter working time reduces stress and increases job satisfaction. A shorter work week, he added, could be viable particularly in sectors where employee productivity can be supported by adopting technological solutions and developing work processes.

“It’s difficult to see that Finland could cut working hours generally. It’s worthwhile to look at the possibilities at the company or organisation level. The issue is certainly worth looking into,” he said.

Proposals for a shift to a four-day work week have been made also in Finland.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) made such a proposal while serving as the minister of transport and communications in 2019. Matias Mäkynen, a deputy chairperson of the Social Democrats, voiced his support for a trial in the wake of the pilot conducted in the UK.

So did the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK). Juha Antila, the director of development at SAK, in February said a 20-per-cent shorter work week should be trialled during the next electoral term, adding that the trial could be organised in collaboration between the central administration and labour market organisations.

“After the trial has ended, you could draft a research-based working time policy that takes into account people’s well-being and the need to lengthen careers,” he said in a press release from SAK.

Markus Äimälä, the head of legal affairs at the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), rejected the idea in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat. Working time, he argued, should rather be increased due to pressures arising from population ageing and labour shortage.

Increasing working time is not the answer, Härmä stated to YLE.

“Increasing working time is probably roughly the same as proposing a pay cut in negotiations. There’s also the danger that productivity decreases as sickness-related absences and staff turnover increase. In times of labour shortage, it’s best to improve working conditions if you want to make sure that staff are content and remain productive,” he argued.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is presently looking into possibilities to trial reduced working hours in Finland.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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