Flexible Working Hours Can Benefit Work-Life Balance, Productivity

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Innovative working time arrangements, such as those introduced during the COVID-19 crisis, can bring benefits for economies, businesses and workers, including greater productivity and improved work-life balance.

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GENEVA (ILO News) – Reduced working hours and more flexible working time arrangements, such as those used during the COVID-19 crisis, can benefit economies, enterprises and workers, and lay the ground for a better and more healthy work-life balance, according to a new ILO report.

The report, Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World , looks at the two main aspects of working time; working hours and working time arrangements (also called work schedules) and the effects of both on business performance and workers’ work-life balance. It includes a range of new statistics covering hours of work, both before and during the COVID-19 crisis .

The study, which is the first to focus on work-life balance, found that a substantial portion of the global workforce are working either long or short hours when compared to a standard eight-hour day/40 hour working week. More than one-third of all workers are regularly working more than 48 hours per week, while a fifth of the global workforce is working short (part-time) hours of less than 35 per week. Informal economy workers are more likely to have long or short hours.

The report analyses different working-time arrangements and their effects on work-life balance, including shift work, on-call work, compressed hours and hours-averaging schemes. It cautions that the benefits of some of these flexible arrangements, such as better family life, may be accompanied by costs including greater gender imbalances and health risks.

There is a substantial amount of evidence that work–life balance policies provide significant benefits to enterprises, supporting the argument that such policies are a ‘win-win’ for both employers and employees,” the report states.

It also looks at the crisis response measures governments and businesses used during the COVID-19 pandemic to help keep organizations functioning and workers employed. It found that the increased proportion of workers on reduced hours helped to prevent job losses. Long-term changes are also highlighted: “The large-scale implementation of telework nearly everywhere in the world that it was feasible to do so, changed… the nature of employment, most likely for the foreseeable future,” the report says.

The COVID-19 crisis measures also yielded powerful new evidence that giving workers more flexibility in how, where and when they work can be positive both for them and for business, for example by improving productivity. Conversely, restricting flexibility brings substantial costs, including increased staff turnover.

“There is a substantial amount of evidence that work–life balance policies provide significant benefits to enterprises, supporting the argument that such policies are a ‘win-win’ for both employers and employees,” the report states.

“The so-called ‘Great Resignation’ phenomenon has placed work-life balance at the forefront of social and labour market issues in the post-pandemic world,” said Jon Messenger, the lead author of the report. “This report shows that if we apply some of the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis and look very carefully at the way working hours are structured, as well as their overall length, we can create a win-win, improving both business performance and work-life balance.”

The report includes a number of conclusions and recommendations, including:

  • Working-time laws and regulations on maximum daily hours of work and statutory rest periods are achievements that contribute to the long-term health and well-being of a society and must not be put at risk.
  • Longer hours of work are generally associated with lower unit labour productivity, while shorter hours of work are linked with higher productivity.
  • Countries should make use of the experiences they developed with working-time reduction and flexibility during the COVID-19 crisis. Inclusive short-time work schemes with the highest possible allowances not only maintain employment but also sustain purchasing power and create the possibility of cushioning the effects of economic crises.
  • Public policy responses are needed to promote reductions in hours of work in many countries, to promote both a healthy work-life balance and improved productivity.
  • Teleworking helps maintain employment and creates new scope for employee autonomy. However, these and other types of flexible working arrangements need regulating, to contain their potential negative effects, through policies such as what is often called a “right to disconnect” from work.
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