By about 2030, people will probably only work 15 hours a week.
It seems clear now that the famous prediction, made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930, is unlikely to come true. But the cult of excessive work may also have had its day.
In Scandinavia, where people are currently enjoying up to four weeks of uninterrupted, legally protected, paid summer vacation, many of the region’s biggest companies say they’re keen to shield their employees from too much work. Firms contacted by Bloomberg warned of the danger to productivity if staff aren’t allowed to switch off, and highlighted the importance of having management teams set the tone by taking a long break.
Skanska AB, one of Sweden’s biggest construction companies, says it tells staff to “disconnect from the job” during their summer break. There’s a “strong link” between well-being and performance, spokesman Jacob Birkeland said. And that’s “largely about being able to relax when away from work.”
At SEB AB, one of the biggest Nordic banks and top trading hubs for the Swedish krona, managers are expected to play a “key role” in supporting the vacation culture by “setting a good example” in taking the allocated days, spokeswoman Veronika Osmund says.
Sweden, the biggest Scandinavian economy, requires companies to let employees take at least five paid weeks off a year, though many industries are regulated by collective agreements, which often result in more free time. Similar arrangements exist across the rest of the region. The European average annual holiday allowance is four weeks.
In the U.S., the companies that offer paid vacation tend to follow a progressive format, whereby new hires earn days off the longer they work. A 2018 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that U.S. private industry workers got an average of 15 paid vacation days a year, after half a decade of service.
Legislators in Scandinavia have decided that 15 days a year just isn’t enough to keep the employed population healthy and productive. That attitude dominates across the corporate sphere, and all major companies contacted by Bloomberg voiced the idea that overwork is harmful to a healthy corporate environment. That’s backed by studies showing that employees who feel overworked are less productive.
At Sandvik AB, an engineering group, management doesn’t want people to take less than four weeks of paid vacation a year. “We feel that it’s important to facilitate a work-life balance for all employees, including senior management,” spokesman Martin Blomgren said.
The top executives and others working at GN Store Nord A/S, a Danish hearing aid maker whose stock has tripled in the last three years, get six weeks off a year, and are encouraged to make sure they take the time, according to spokesman Steen Frentz Laursen.
SSAB AB, which makes steel plates, says that on top of having decent breaks, it’s also important to make sure staff don’t work too hard. Even taking a long vacation “can’t compensate for an unreasonably high workload during the remainder of the year,” spokeswoman Mia Widell said.
Most of the top executives Bloomberg tried to contact for comment were unavailable, due to the summer break. And in most cases, companies insisted their top people not be disturbed during their vacations. Veli-Matti Mattila, the chief executive officer of Finnish telecoms company Elisa Oyj, is just one of several CEOs who doesn’t answer questions in the middle of his four-week break.
“We think that executives need to take a break as well,” said Elisa spokeswoman Katiye Vuorela. “And have holidays in order to relax.”
Or as Keynes put it in his 1930 essay titled, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
With assistance from Christian Wienberg and Kati Pohjanpalo.