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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 30
Working Hours

Working time and work-life balance

12 January 2023

Working time issues have been at the heart of the ILO since its foundation in 1919. Since then the world of work has changed radically, but ideas about how, where and when work is performed have remained largely the same, notably the long-held assumption of a link between longer hours and greater productivity.

A new ILO report on working time and work-life balance has taken a fresh look at the issue, and found that the number of hours worked – whether too many or too few – as well as the schedule under which they are worked can have a significant effect on the health and wellbeing of individuals, their families and societies overall.

It dissects the relationship between productivity, working hours and work schedules, and analyses the lessons about flexible working and work-life balance revealed by the COVID-19 crisis.



Hello, and welcome to the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

How many hours a week do you work?

Would you like to work more or fewer?

How does your work time affect the rest of your life,

your family and social commitments, your mental and physical health?

All these issues came into the spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis

when working patterns changed radically worldwide.

It generated what might be called a great rethink

about when and how we work.

Working time issues have been at the heart

of the ILO since its foundation.

Indeed, the first-ever ILO Convention in 1919, was on working time.

Now, a new ILO report looks not only at working time but also,

at the much-discussed issue of work-life balance.

Its lead author, Jon Messenger, is my guest today.

Jon, welcome, and congratulations on the new report, working time,

and work-life balance around the world.

Thank you very much, Sophy, pleasure to be with you.

Let me jump straight in.

One of the things that you say in the report is that reduced

and more flexible working hours can and that's an important word,

can benefit work-life balance and productivity.

Why don't we start with having you unpack that a little?


Well, there's some issues that come out very much from the report.

For example, there's a third of the global workforce slightly over a third,

that's working long hours more than 48 hours a week, and yet,

there's also about a fifth of the global workforce

20% that are working shorter part-time hours.

In other words, first of all, the average classical 40 hour workweek

isn't typical for most of the world's workforce.

We got to think about the long hours and the short hours and the implications.

That's where you really get into some of these issues

because when you're really working long hours,

you have a lot of challenges with work-life balance,

it's much harder to be able to achieve work-life balance.

That's where reduced working hours can come in handy.

When you're working very short hours,

then you might have an issue with earning enough money,

being able to support yourself and your family, in fact,

being underemployed.

Really, the potential here is if you can both reduce working hours

and be able to make them more flexible,

such that workers are able to organize their work

schedules in line with their personal needs,

then you have the possibility of having this win-win.

I don't think many workers are going to disagree

with you on the issue of flexible working hours,

but the question of improved productivity,

tell me a little bit more about that.

What's the evidence for improved productivity

and better performance for businesses?

First of all, it's a very commonly believed myth but still a myth

that long working hours are highly productive.

In fact, we know that long working hours are not very productive.

Those countries and those organizations working the longest hours tend

to have lower levels of productivity whereas countries and organizations

who are working shorter hours have higher levels of productivity.

Why is that?

Because when you work long hours you become more and more fatigued,

stressed and you're diminishing, economists call it,

declining marginal productivity.

Declining marginal productivity simply means

that you get less and less productive as you work more and more.

Reducing working hours has the potential to increase

productivity but at the same time, making working hours more flexible,

helping workers to have the possibility to organize the work schedules

in line with their personal needs gives us

a better work-life balance which, why does that benefit employers?

Why does that raise productivity?

Because of something called reciprocity.

Reciprocity is just a fancy way of saying

you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

In fact, what you're really doing when you're offering workers flexibility

and it can indeed be a real competitive

advantage for employers is you're saying, okay, I'm going to help you.

I'm going to empower you to be able to organize your work life,

your schedules, and in some cases,

also where you work like with telework in line with your personal needs.

We know this not only from this report but the entire social science

literature on the topic says that workers respond by saying, hey,

my employer is doing for me, helping me,

allowing me to have better work-life balance.

As a return, I'm going to give them more effort.

I'm going to work my best.

I'm going to deliver my best product and at the same time,

I'm going to be less likely to miss work.

Absenteeism's going to go down.

I'm going to be less likely to leave.

Staff turnover is going to go down

so higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and lower staff turnover,

all potential benefits of reduced more flexible schedules.

Which is more important?

Is it the number of hours worked or is it the work schedule?

They're both quite important, each in their own way, as I said.

Particularly, the longer the working hours the less productive they are.

There's declining marginal productivity.

There's shorter working hours.

On the one hand, that's higher marginal productivity,

you know what I mean?

Productivity at the margin, the extra hour of work simply doesn't deliver

the same results as the earlier hour of work.

The schedules, on top of it, then can augment any level.

At any level of working hours,

you can improve your productivity by allowing

more flexibility in how the schedule is organized by allowing

workers to be able to organize it in line with their personal needs

because then workers will produce more.

There's another issue related to that too which is workers can work

when they're most productive, they're going to do better.

I might not be a morning person.

I might do my work better later in the day.

It's an advantage for you to manage me

by results not by physical presence,

not by whether I happen to be sitting in a chair at any given time.

Have a results-based management system focus on results

and by doing that, I can do my work whenever it's most convenient for me.

Also, when I'm at my most productive

or conversely maybe you're a morning person,

so you don't want to be working later in the day.

You want to start early.

You want to get up first thing in the morning and get going.

With this kind of flexibility,

you can work at those times and in those places

where you can be most productive, that's all the reasons that can come

together to give you improved productivity.

You are, you are a white-collar worker.

I'm a white-collar worker.

Is this only for people like us

or what about other sectors of the economy, blue-collar workers,

agricultural workers, and so forth?

It can certainly be for them but not in the same form.

For example, if you're working in some blue-collar occupation,

you can't really talk about telework

because it's very hard to perform those jobs remotely,

at least, most of those jobs.

If you're working as a shop clerk or something like that

or you're working in a restaurant, obviously,

you have to be physically present but you can still offer

workers more choices, more options about when they work.

Even with shift work, it's a perfect example.

That's a very old style of flexibility.

You can manage it very different ways.

You can say everybody has to take these shifts

and just organize it that way and just randomly parcel out the shifts

or say now you work day shift, now you work evening shift,

now you work night shift.

Or you can turn it around and say what do you prefer?

Because if you have different people with different preferences like,

for example, with night work,

you can put people on those shifts with those hours that they prefer.

Some people like working nights, other people can't stand it.

It's very hard to do but there are some people

who simply are better at it.

You see what I mean?

Even with the most basic kind of flexibility,

you can offer workers choice

and influence over their working hours which, in turn,

can bring you better results.

Where did this idea come from that more working time,

literally more hours on the job is better

and that fewer working hours less than eight hours

a day five days a week is basically slacking?

Where did we get this from? [chuckles]

That's a very old question.

I think it's something that's just ingrained in culture.

It probably came from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution

and people working very long hours

and the association of long working hours with hard work.

If you were working hard, you were working very long hours.

I think a lot of that is this cultural leftover that we have.

Of course, there's some truth to it

when you're working on very low productivity situations,

for example, when you're working in industries

and sectors that really don't allow you

to have very high productivity,

you don't have access to technology or you don't have access to tools

that enable you to be more productive.

As we've improved over time,

and that just isn't just white-collar occupations,

that's blue-collar occupations with computer-assisted design,

computer-assisted, and manufacturing,

all the kinds of tools that you have today.

You got to engage people's brains too.

Part of it is really trying to figure out how to work smarter, get people

who know the jobs to help you figure out how to organize them best

and when that they can best be performed.

If you do that, then you can get past this cultural myth

of long working hours equals high productivity, and in fact,

realize that focused working time is what gets you the high productivity.

We've just been through COVID which was basically

a two, three-year massive experiment in flexible

working applied at a practical level.

What are the key takeaways from that?

If we want to get the best out of the COVID experience,

are there any lessons that we can learn for that

and apply to create a better working future?

Yes, there really are.

I think this is a great opportunity and this is already happening.

The thing is this is already happening spontaneously.

What we had was actually, I even call it the Great Pandemic Teleworking

experiment because you had countries,

good examples are in Eastern Europe, Romania,

and Bulgaria that saw between 2000% and 3000% increases

in the proportion of workers teleworking

going from a very low base to everybody basically who could do it.

Now, I think we're in a position where we can say,

"Hey, we've learned teleworking can be something that is a crisis

response measure as well as something that you can use on normal cases."

Same way with reduced working hours,

because work sharing which is also called short-time work

where you reduce working hours instead of cutting your labour force.

Say, for example, you're cutting back 20%

say you have a 20% reduction in demand, well,

you could lay off 20% of your workforce

or you could spread that 20% reduction

over all five days across your whole workforce.

Thereby have everybody working on a four-day work week

and still retaining employment with

all the concomitant benefits for themselves,

their families in the economy.

What you're saying there is that

a more flexible working approach reduces the need for that blunt hire

and fire tool that is used for economic adjustment.

Not only that, let me point out,

it doesn't just benefit workers and employers during the economic crisis.

This wasn't the first time,

this was also deployed during the great recession,

during the global financial crisis.

I talked a lot about that and I produced a book

on work sharing based on that experience.

It doesn't just do that at that point during the crisis,

it also benefits them after the crisis.

One of the things that we've seen

is those companies that hung on to their workers

during the COVID-19 crisis actually benefited because after the crisis,

they could just ramp up their workforce

to full-time because they still had them.

Whereas a lot of the companies that said, okay, we're just going to let you go,

then when they went to try to get those workers back,

they weren't available anymore.

Right now, we are in a position where, in a lot of countries,

there appears to be a labor shortage, people can't hire.


Do you see this working time,

work-life balance issue as a possible tool for resolving that

and actually, indeed a competitiveness issue for employers

who are competing for the best staff?


In fact, this is a tremendous advantage for those employers

who are willing to be really aggressive

in promoting flexibility and saying

it's a very clear deal what you're offering.

You say, "Hey, you want flexibility?"

It's very clear that in the wake of the pandemic people are looking

for more flexibility than ever before in terms of not only

when they work but also where they work.

It's when and where, it's the time and it's also the place.

Employers who are saying,

"Hey, we're willing to offer you that flexibility,

you can work when and where you choose.

All we ask in return is that you hit our targets,

we manage you by results and as long as you hit your targets,

as long as you deliver for us,

then you have all the flexibility that you could want."

That's a huge competitive advantage

because not only are you avoiding turnover,

you're actually becoming a magnet

that's attracting the top talent to you.

The best people are going to come beating a path to your door.

Conversely, if you don't do that, I forget which journal I saw,

I saw it in one very high-level journal,

I can't remember if it was Harvard Business Review

or what it was but it was, but it was a very academic,

very well researched article but they had the most pithy

quote you could ever dream of to draw in the audience which is,

"Let me work remotely or I quit."

I thought that was really amazing.

Or presumably, let me work remotely

or I don't come and work for you in the first place.

Yes, oh, there you go.

Presumably, one thing we saw during COVID is that some groups

who had not been able to do the 9:00 to 5:00 in the office,

suddenly found they could reenter the workforce albeit

perhaps on some flexible or part-time basis.

Do you see this as a tool that could also bring

people back into the workforce?


I think it's interesting that you say that because, in fact,

right at the beginning of the pandemic,

I did more webinars during the pandemic

because I also handled telework in addition to working time for the ILO.

One of the first,

might have been the very first webinar I did,

was we start with our disability unit.

Actually, we had a webinar on telework for individuals with disabilities

and how telework could be an opportunity for individuals

with disabilities to be able to be integrated

or reintegrated into the workforce.

In some ways, it was a great leveler because whereas before perhaps

they might have suffered

discrimination because they couldn't physically come

to the workplace or because it was so much harder for them

to physically come to the workplace, suddenly,

when everybody had to work remotely,

they were just the same as anybody else.

Hey, I got a computer, I got access to the internet,

I can do anything anybody else can do just

because I can't physically come into the office

or can't do so very easily.

I can still do everything that anybody else could do.

All of a sudden, that was a huge selling point, I think,

for people in that situation, they're not the only case.

I thought it was so clear

and that was the first webinar I did really sticks in my mind.

Okay. We should make it clear

that there is more flexi working,

there are far more models of flexi working,

which I find very interesting.

The number of types I was averaging compressed work,

weeks flexi-time on-call, part-time shift work, so many different kinds,

but they come with disadvantages,

including potentially forms of discrimination, unpredictability,

bad health impacts on things like if you're constantly on-call, we know

about zero hours contracts.

How do we make sure that a brave new world

of flexi working actually focuses on increasing the benefits

and doesn't come with a whole new catalog of disadvantages?

We are going to need some control and regulation of this, right?


I think what's needed and I'm certainly not going to prescribe,

certainly, no one size is going to fit all, but at the same time,

I think you got to have a framework and that's one of the things

when people have said this to me, including ILO constituents,

including employers and workers and governments have said to me,

"Hey, what do you need?"

I've said, "I think you do."

What kind of regulatory framework do you need?

I think you need a regulatory framework.

I think you need to have something that's based on social dialogue,

that's based on agreement amongst the parties,

amongst workers and employers, and enshrined in collective agreements,

or if necessary, in laws and regulations, but they need to be flexible.

One of the examples that I've given since the beginning

is the European Framework Agreement on Telework, which is from 2002.

The social partners at EU level have now, in fact,

begun to renegotiate that directive,

but one of the things that I thought was amazing

about that is though it was done in 2002,

it remained relevant right up to the pandemic because it was flexible.

It provided protections to workers.

It provided a framework.

It didn't allow for the Wild Wild West, but at the same time,

it was flexible enough that different sectors

could adapt it to their needs

and different enterprises could adapt it to their needs,

different occupations, different groups of workers.

I think a flexible framework,

the European Telework Agreement of 2002

really has the potential to improve both working conditions writ large,

not only working time, but working conditions writ large,

and at the same time to improve productivity in business outcomes.

Jon, this is a fascinating subject.

I'm sure we're going to hear a lot more about it in the months

and years to come, but unfortunately,

that's all we have time for for this podcast.

My thanks very much to you for your time.

If you would like to know more about this report

and its conclusions on working time and work-life balance,

you can find it all on the ILO's website.

For now, let me wish you goodbye,

and please join us again soon for another edition

of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.