Slash the workday by two hours. What happens? In an experiment about employee health, happiness and productivity, a city in Sweden decided to find out.

For two years, the nursing staff at Svartedalens retirement home worked six-hour days. A retirement home nearby maintained the standard eight-hour workday. Both were paid for an eight-hour day.

At the end, the somewhat-obvious results compared the happiness, health and productivity of the two groups. The nurses working the reduced six-hour days had higher energy at work, better productivity, improved health and fewer sick days.

But the experiment was expensive. With each staff member working 10 fewer hours each week, the nursing home had to hire 17 extra employees. This cost them $1.47 million, New York Times reported.

The shorter workday benefited the employees, but not their employer. It appeared that case for a 30-hour workweek was thin. The costs far outweighed the benefits.

Until researcher Bengt Lorentzon took a look at the results from a different angle. Lorentzon felt not enough attention was paid to the long-term cost-saving benefits of healthier employees. These are a few tangible results from the initial study of the six-hour workday:

  • Nurses called in sick 15% less often
  • They got an average of one more hour of sleep per night
  • They felt less stressed and felt happier
  • They took less unexpected time off

No doubt about it, healthier workers are more productive and less expensive for their employers. The Svartedalens study only lasted two years, so we can't know if employees would have sustained those health benefits. Still, the study failed to calculate the cost savings of improved employee health over this two-year period. The results might have been surprising. Healthy employees could save their employers thousands, according to another study.

Sick employees cost twice as much as healthy ones

In the other study, researchers collected information from 9,000 employees, then ranked them as having optimal, moderate or low cardiovascular health.

Health care costs for the healthiest group averaged $4,300. The sickest group cost their employer $10,000 in healthcare costs. Moderately healthy employees cost an average of $5,800.

Study co-author Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., the American Heart Association's chief medical officer for prevention, commented on the Svartedalens study: "A more complete analysis [of Sweden] would include the upside of having done it," he told Bloomberg. "The question is what were they measuring in terms of cost and what was included and what wasn't included?"

Unmeasured savings of happier, healthier employees

Healthier employees not only accrue fewer health care costs, but also are more productive at work and take fewer sick days. This saves employers money, too.

Staff also reported feeling happier and having more energy during the six-hour workday experiment. This led to nurses bringing more enthusiasm to their day-to-day work. They engaged more with residents and planned more activities such as nature walks and sing-a-longs. In other words, the quality of care improved. It's likely the medical costs of the residents may have been reduced as well.

Whether researchers conduct deeper analysis of the costs from the Svartedalens study or not, one fact is clear: Everyone benefits from happier, healthier employees. And it just might save employers some money, too.