There's a paradox at the heart of productivity -- while longer hours seem to be the obvious solution for those who want to accomplish more, working less often means getting more done.

Don't believe me? A town in Sweden recently conducted a real-world experiment that might convince you. Last year the city government in Gothenburg noticed it had a burnout problem at the town's publicly run nursing homes and hospitals. "Since the 1990s, we have had more work and fewer people--we can't do it any more. There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion--the lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone," one nurse told the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper.

Shorter hours, same pay.

So the city took action -- reducing shifts at one nursing facility from eight to six hours, bringing the working week to 30 hours for affected workers but keeping their pay unchanged. How has this experiment in the relationship between hours worked and productivity played out? The care home, Svartedalens, is keeping careful track of the repercussions with another facility acting as a control for comparison.

Unsurprisingly, everyone is happier and the quality of care has improved. "It is too early to put figures on the results, but nurses at Svartedalens have more energy, are less stressed, and have more time for the residents, who themselves are more comfortable and relaxed," the Guardian reports. Equally unsurprisingly, the initiative is costing Gothenburg money. They needed to hire 14 new staff to cover the new shift patterns and spent nearly $1 million to do it.

The might seem like a hefty bill but Gothenburg obviously sees it as money well spent. The city has expanded the new initiative to doctors at a local hospital (another town in the north of the country is following suit). Elections could bring the experiment to a halt, however, if new leaders seize control.

What's this got to do with me?

All of which is delightful for overworked Swedish medical workers, but what does it have to say to the average American entrepreneur? Productivity, the Gothenburg experiment shows, isn't just about squeezing more work (no matter how shoddy) out of employees (no matter how miserable). Unless you're making commoditized widgets (in which case cost constraints probably mean you're producing in Bangladesh or Vietnam, not Ohio), productivity is a balance between quality and quantity. You can sometimes get more of the former with longer hours but only at the cost of the latter.

If you look at productivity in this way, more hours often means less meaningful work accomplished. And that's not just in touchy feely professions like nursing. Toyota service centers in Gothenburg acted as one of the inspirations for the care home experiment. They switched to a 30-hour workweek over a decade ago.

With profits up by 25 percent, staff turnover much reduced, and more efficient use of expensive shop equipment contributing to lower capital costs, managing director Martin Banck has never looked back. "Staff feel better, there is low turnover, and it is easier to recruit new people," he told the Guardian. "Everyone is happy."

The theory of shorter hours.

If you're the type that's more likely to be convinced by theory than anecdotal evidence, there is plenty of hard data to support Gothenburg's hunch that shorter weeks lead to better, more efficient work (and as the Toyota example illustrates, sometimes even higher profits). Quartz rounded up some of it as part of its reporting on the Swedish experiment:

"Last year, Stanford economist John Pencavel proved (pdf) that output does not proportionally increase with each additional hour worked. In fact, above a certain number of hours, he found, work output begins to rise more slowly. British employees work more than French or German employees, but produce, on average, 27% to 31% less than their continental colleagues, according to a 2013 Office for National Statistics report. The US is the second-most productive country worldwide, second only to Luxembourg, according to OCED data, but spends 20% more time at work than those in Luxembourg."

Here on Inc.com, I've rounded up lots of similar evidence that long hours don't really pay off in more output and that our crazy workweeks are more about status signaling than productivity. So what's the lesson here? Besides that it's good to be Swedish, the obvious takeaway is to really consider if putting in fewer, more high-quality hours might make you both saner and more productive.

Published on: Oct 5, 2015