According to a new International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, 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.
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.
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.
While limiting the number of hours of work to protect workers’ health has been an important issue for more than a century, the emergence of work–life balance as a significant social goal came much later, stemming from policymakers’ increased awareness of the difficulty workers faced in reconciling their personal lives with their paid work.
This awareness first arose from the decline of the “male breadwinner model” and the subsequent mass entry of women into the labour market, which led to a “dual earner model” in which all adults are assumed to be in paid work.
A 2018 ILO report indicates that this work–life conflict persists today, particularly for women, who continue to perform the majority of household and care tasks in all countries (ILO 2018).
“In addition, demographic shifts associated with an ageing population and the burden of providing care for elderly family members have further intensified work–life conflict. Aside from the individual impacts of this development, such as stress, enterprises experience negative externalities from work–family conflict, including lower 1 productivity levels and absenteeism related to workers who struggle to care for their family members,” reads the report in part.
The report reveals that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has reinforced these concerns, at least in more developed countries.
“This has led many workers to seek new jobs that provide them with greater flexibility, in particular the ability to work remotely, and therefore the opportunity to achieve a better balance between their paid work and their personal lives, including more time for their families and more time to devote to their own personal interests as well,” the report says.
Improving and facilitating work– life balance has therefore become an increasing focus for policymakers in recent decades.
Benefits of work-life balance to employees
Better work–life balance is associated with a multitude of benefits for employees.
For one, it has been empirically shown to facilitate increased job satisfaction and greater feelings of job security among those workers who report high levels of work–life balance.
The report notes that a reasonable work–life balance also has significant positive effects on the psychological and physical health of employees.
According to the study, if workers are not able to achieve a reasonable work–life balance, they may experience negative health consequences and working hours are an important factor influencing workers’ work–life balance.
“For example, long hours of work per week (more than 48) are associated with reduced levels of reported work–life balance and increased work–family conflict, particularly if such long hours are involuntary. Indeed, Fagan et al. reviewed a large number of studies that have identified long hours of work as an important predictor of work–life conflict and concluded that work–family incompatibility, less engagement in community and civic life and lower fertility rates are all common outcomes of long hours of work.”
Additionally, such work–life imbalances may also reduce mental well-being, resulting in stress, anxiety and lower job and life satisfaction.
“For example, workers reporting substantial work– family conflict have been found to face higher levels of depression and poorer physical health and to be more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use,” the report highlights.
Overall, a healthy work–life balance has been shown to have a positive effect on the experience of work and is effective in preventing negative psychological and physiological health effects.
Benefits of work-life balances to company
A healthy work–life balance among employees is also beneficial for employers and provides a number of positive effects for enterprises.
According to the report, companies that implement work–life balance policies benefit from increased retention of current employees, improved recruitment, lower rates of absenteeism and higher productivity.
“For example, a study of 45 companies across North America that facilitated work–life balance found the presence of such policies to be associated with increased employee retention and improved recruitment and similar findings were reported. In a longitudinal assessment of the implementation of flexible scheduling in a public service organization, Dalton and Mesch (1990) found that absenteeism decreased significantly among employees in the experimental group but not the control group,” the report states.
Moreover, enterprises that implement polices focused on cultivating work–life balance report higher levels of productivity as well.
More specifically, a number of studies reveal a link between flexible work arrangements and higher levels of self-reported focus, concentration and motivation.
Finally, employers also benefit from employees that are more loyal: policies that empower workers to organize their hours based on their needs are linked to greater job satisfaction, loyalty and organizational commitment.
A new era of COVID-19
The global teleworking experiment, according to the report unleashed as a crisis response measure to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent post-pandemic “great resignation” phenomenon yielded new, powerful evidence that providing workers with greater flexibility in deciding when, where and how they work results in positive business outcomes, including improved productivity, and that conversely, restricting such flexibility results in substantial costs, including increased turnover.
“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.
Therefore, 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.