Flexible working hours can hinder work–life balance

One of the most important measures in attempting to enhance employees’ opportunities for maintaining a work–life balance has been to increase flexibility in working time. However, results from the Level of Living Survey 2006 indicate that the link between flexibility and work–life balance is not straightforward, and that it may depend for example on working hours and occupation. Predictability of working time also seems to be an important factor.

The Norwegian government has focused its efforts in the area of work-life balance on adapting the working lives of parents to be compatible with family responsibilities. An example of this is the law established in 2006 giving all employees in Norway the right to flexible working hours. This law includes certain reservations, as flexible working hours may be difficult to implement in certain businesses or organisations – for example, in the services sector where the needs of patients or clients must be taken into consideration. An ultimate aim is for women and men to be able to share both work and childcare (see article Norwegian fathers choose paternity leave and NO0308103F).

Survey findings

Every three years, the working conditions of employees in Norway are assessed through an official national survey entitled the Level of Living Survey: Working Conditions (Levekårsundersøkelsen: Arbeidsmiljø) (NO0711019D). Interviews in the 2006 survey were carried out by telephone; a response rate of 67% resulted in a final sample size of almost 10,000 workers. New survey data give updated information on how employees perceive their work–life balance. The survey also examines whether employees with flexible working time arrangements face fewer problems than those who do not have flexible working time in relation to balancing their working life with family responsibilities. Self-employed workers were not included in these analyses.

Nearly 40% of the employees who were interviewed reported that work-related demands never interfered with their family life. On the other hand, 19% of men and 15% of women reported this interference rather or very often. A large part of this gender difference can be accounted for by the fact that more female workers than male workers work part time: 44% compared with 13%. Focusing on full-time workers only, the gender difference is smaller.

Effect of weekly working hours

No direct link appears between weekly working hours and work–family conflict for employees working less than 40 hours a week. However, an increase in the number of working hours over 40 hours a week is clearly associated with greater work–family conflict (Figure 1).

Weekly working hours and work–family conflict (%)

Weekly working hours and work–family conflict (%)

Note: Proportion of workers reporting work–family conflict rather or very often.

Source: Statistics Norway (Statistisk sentralbyrås, SSB), Level of Living Survey: Working Conditions, 2006

Impact of occupation

According to occupational category, Figure 2 shows that almost one out of three legislators, senior officials and managers report a work–family conflict rather often or very often. In this group, 71% of the employees are men and 29% are women. The group is also characterised by long working hours, with 42% of the people working 40 to 48 hours a week and 26% working more than 48 hours a week. Teachers also commonly report experiencing a poor work–life balance. In this group, 69% are women and, while 31% of teachers work 40 to 48 hours a week, only 6% work more than 48 hours a week.

The categories experiencing the least work–family conflict are clerks and employees in caring, welfare and social work occupations. Looking at these two groups combined, 77% are women, 10% work 40 to 48 hours a week, and just 2% work more than 48 hours a week.

Work–family conflict, by occupation (%)

Work–family conflict, by occupation (%)

Note: Proportion of workers reporting work–family conflict rather or very often.

Source: SSB, 2006

Different forms of working time flexibility

The analysis differentiates between having completely flexible working hours and ‘flexitime’, that is, flexible working hours within certain limits. The latter implies that employees have the right to choose their own working time within a set time frame, and is by far the more common arrangement. For example, workers employed by the Norwegian government are allowed to decide their own working time within the hours of 07.00 to 20.00, with so-called ‘core time’ from 09.30 to 14.30 when all workers are expected to be present. In Norway, 31% of all employees work flexitime, while 61% start work at a certain time. Some 6% of employees can decide their working hours entirely for themselves and 2% work when called on. Flexitime is more common among men (34%) than among women (29%).

The Level of Living Survey finds that almost 20% of workers on flexitime experience work–family conflict, compared with 14% of those required to start work at a certain time everyday (Figure 3). Meanwhile, workers who are entirely free to decide their own working schedule are most likely to experience work–family conflict (27%).

Flexibility in working time and work–family conflict (%)

Flexibility in working time and work–family conflict (%)

Note: Proportion of workers reporting work–family conflict rather or very often.

Source: SSB, 2006

Commentary

According to the results, predictability may be preferable to flexibility when it comes to maintaining a work–family balance (see also TN0510TR02). However, the results should be interpreted with care. The occupational category reporting the most work–family conflict (legislators, senior officials and managers) represents those who are likely to have flexibility in their work schedule, but also the longest weekly working hours. Further research in this area should focus on the link between flexible working hours and work–family balance, and the extent to which flexible working time is associated with weekly working hours, job content and other job specific factors that also contribute to work–family balance.

Trine Eiken, National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI)

 

 

 

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