Why flexible working is good for workers and companies

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Gabi Thesing, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • More flexible working and shorter hours improve work-life balance and company productivity, a new International Labour Organization report says.
  • The standard 8-hour work day is becoming less common as many people work longer or shorter hours.
  • Skills shortages in some developed markets will accelerate the trend of offering more flexible working hours.

COVID-19 has accelerated changes in how we work and live. Many of those developments – such as fewer hours at our desks and more flexible working arrangements – not only benefit workers but also economies because they enhance productivity, a recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) has found.

“It’s a very commonly believed myth, but still a myth, that long working hours are highly productive,” said Jon Messenger, author of the Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World report in the accompanying podcast. “In fact, we know that long working hours are not very productive.”

He highlights that the countries and organizations with the most extended working hours tend to have lower productivity levels than those with shorter hours.

On average, people work longer in Asia and the Pacific (47.4 hours per week), particularly in Southern Asia (49.0) and Eastern Asia (48.8), the report finds. The shortest average working hours per week are in North America (37.9) and Europe and Central Asia (38.4), particularly in Northern, Southern and Western Europe (37.2).

A bar chart showing average hours of work per week, by sex and geographical region.

People in Southern Asia work the longest hours, while Europeans have the shortest working hours on average Image: International Labour Organization.

End of the 8-hour workday?

Drilling down into the numbers, the report also finds that the typical 8-hour working day is becoming more uncommon.

More than a third of all workers regularly work 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 ILO defines informal employment as an economic activity that is not fully protected by formal arrangements, either legally or in practice.

Incidentally, informal employment grew at a “rapid pace” in 2022 after dropping significantly during the pandemic and is now on a par with formal employment rates, the ILO said in a separate report. The disproportionate number of job losses partly explains this rebound for formally employed women during 2020, it says.

Long hours, or wrong hours?

The Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World report confirms previous research that long hours are especially harmful to work-life balance, leading to lower life satisfaction. That said, it also highlights that part-time work can also be a problem when people would like to work longer hours to boost their earnings.

Overall, mismatches between workers’ actual hours of work and their preferred hours of work tend to lead to poorer outcomes for physical and mental health.

A table showing objective mismatch rates based on national and ILO definitions.

Workers in upper-income and lower-income countries reported the biggest mismatch between the hours worked and the hours they wanted to work. Image: International Labour Organization.

From an employer’s perspective, working-time mismatches generally result in lower productivity, poorer job performance and higher turnover and absenteeism.

Best working models

The ILO has examined the most common working models and explored what works well and what does not:

  • The standard workweek (8-hour says, five or six days per week) provides stability, but is often too inflexible to allow time for family demands.
  • Shift work can provide greater flexibility but may require work during unusual hours, which has been linked to significant health risks and family-life disruptions.
  • On-call work – based on highly unpredictable “just-in-time” schedules – can negatively affect workers’ health.
  • Flexible schedules that allow work to be carried out within certain time frames can lead to an optimal work-life balance.
  • Compressed work weeks provide employees with longer weekends, and the evidence around them points towards positive effects for workers.
  • Schemes, where hours are averaged out over longer periods of one to four months, can boost work-life balance, but if they are poorly designed employees can face drastic swings in working hours that disrupt their personal lives.

The ILO research is confirmed across the board. Pensions company Aviva last year found that more workers were attracted to their current role because of the work-life balance (41%) than the salary (36%). This marks a reversal compared with 2019, before the pandemic when salary (41.02%) was more important than work-life balance (40.97%).

Skills shortages in some developed markets like the UK will accelerate the trend for offering more flexible working hours. This is particularly true for companies trying to tempt the over-50s to return to work after quitting full-time jobs during the pandemic, The Financial Times reports.

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