EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Working time and work-life balance

Working time: ‘Any period during which the worker is working, at the employer’s disposal and carrying out his activities or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practice’ (Directive 2003/88/EC).

Jump to: Collectively agreed working time, Working time flexibility, Non-standard working hours, Work–life balance

Working time is one of the most important areas of employment policy where the EU has intervened through legislation to improve working conditions and the health and safety of workers, in line with its commitment to ‘more and better jobs’. The Working Time Directive lays down provisions for a maximum 48-hour working week (including overtime), rest periods and breaks, and a minimum of four weeks’ paid leave per year to protect workers from adverse health and safety risks.

For workers, working hours have a direct bearing on standard of living, work–life balance and the overall sustainability of working life. For employers, working time is a key element in the assessment of costs, productivity and competitiveness. National governments see working time, its organisation and its regulation as an important policy issue.

Working time arrangements have particular implications for achieving the Europe 2020 employment target to have 75% of the working age population employed by 2020. Reaching this target demands that more people of working age participate in employment. A significant factor that would support their employment is the availability of working time arrangements, such as part-time work and flexible working hours, that enable work to be combined with other responsibilities.

Eurofound studies on working time aim to improve understanding of how it is organised and how this affects employment, productivity, well-being and the balance between work and private life. The European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) has become an established source of information about working time across the EU and issues related to it. 

Read: Eurofound (2017) - Working time developments in the 21st century: Work duration and its regulation in the EU

This report examines the main trends and milestones characterising the evolution of the most important aspects of collectively agreed working time in the European Union during the first decade of the 21st century. Drawing primarily on information collected by Eurofound across all EU Member States and Norway, it focuses in particular on five sectors: chemicals, metalworking, banking, retail and public administration. The report describes the institutional regimes of regulation and assesses the evolution of agreed working hours (hours expected to be spent on work according to collective agreements or agreed between employers and employees) and usual working hours (hours usually spent in practice in work activities) between 1999 and 2014.

Read: Eurofound (2015) - Opting out of the European Working Time Directive

The European Working Time Directive lays down minimum safety and health requirements for the organisation of working time in the EU by, for example, establishing that all workers have the right to a limit to weekly working time of 48 hours. However, it also contains the possibility for Member States to allow for the opting out of that maximum as long as the individual workers agree. This report looks at how the Member States make use of the possibility of opting out, the extent of its use and its main impacts. 


Read: Eurofound (2009) - Working conditions in the European Union: Working time and work intensity

This report outlines the current situation regarding work intensity, indicating a clear link between work intensity and poor working conditions, both physical and psychological. The analysis is based on findings from the fourth EWCS carried out in 31 countries, including the 27 EU Member States. The analysis reveals sharp variations between different Member States in relation to working hours and the associated gender gap, and points to the huge costs both for workers and companies arising from high work intensity.

Collectively agreed working time

Collective bargaining plays an important role in determining the duration of working time in most of the EU Member States. Eurofound monitors the nature and extent of this role across the various countries, taking into consideration that collective bargaining takes place at different levels (intersectoral, sectoral, company) and that bargaining coverage varies considerably by country. The Agency publishes bi-annual updates on working time developments.

Read: Developments in working time 2015-2016 (and previous years of same series: 20142013, 2012)

Working time flexibility

In a fast-changing economic climate, companies and workers need flexibility. A key characteristic of working time flexibility is the ability of both employers and employees to modify working hours. ‘Employer-friendly’ forms of working time flexibility allow organisations to adjust the supply of human capital according to the time-related requirements of business. ‘Employee-friendly’ forms of working time flexibility provide workers with the freedom to adapt their working hours and schedule to meet personal and family needs.

Read: Organisation of working time: Implications for productivity and working conditions

Non-standard working hours

Non-standard working hours include the extension of working hours through overtime, working at ‘unusual’ times outside traditional societal standards such as the ‘9 to 5’ norm, and varying time schedules over the week, the month or the year. Eurofound research shows that some forms of non-standard working hours, such as night work and shift work, can result in health problems for workers. It is a concern, therefore, that night work and shift work have become, for different reasons, the standard way of organising working time for some sectors and occupations.

Read the article: What’s happening with Sunday work in Europe? (2016)

Read: Eurofound (2007) - Extended and unusual working hours in European companies

This report analyses the data from the Company Survey on Working Time 2004–2005 to address the issue of extended and unusual working hours, by exploring all aspects of what may be called ‘non-standard working hours’: the extension of working hours through overtime, working at ‘unusual’ times beyond traditional societal standards (such as the ‘9 to 5’ norm), and varying time schedules over the week, month or year involving ‘changing’ working hours. It examines in greater detail the incidence and effects of such working hours across countries, sectors and companies.

Work–life balance

A satisfactory work–life balance is achieved when an individual’s right to a fulfilled life inside and outside paid work is accepted and respected as the norm, to the mutual benefit of the individual, business and society. Policy has focused on how to increase employment rates among women and older workers, and work–life balance is an important factor in determining their participation. Eurofound research (EWCS and ECS) has fed into the debate on how this can best be achieved.

The requirements for work–life balance depend very much on an individual’s personal circumstances, such as a partner’s working time and the presence of children or elderly dependants in the household. And these requirements vary over the life course. In the fifth EWCS, nearly one-fifth of workers indicated that they had problems with their work–life balance; men tended to report more problems than women, particularly those in the middle of their working career.

Read: Eurofound (2017) - Working time patterns for sustainable work
Working time is a recurrent topic of study because the nature of work, its content, the conditions under which it is performed and the labour market itself keep changing. This report provides an overview of the recent evolution of working time duration and organisation in the EU and highlights the most important trends and differences between Member States. It examines – from a gender and life course perspective – the links between working time patterns, work–life balance and working time preferences, on the one hand, and workers’ health and well-being on the other.

Read: Eurofound (2016) - Sustainable work throughout the life course: National policies and strategies
European countries face the challenges of ageing populations supported by shrinking workforces, more precarious types of employment, and in many cases, a decreasing number of jobs in the wake of the economic crisis. As a result, the issue of how to enable more people to participate in the labour market and to continue to do so until an older age has become a key policy issue in all EU Member States.


Read: Promoting work-life balance of working families and caregivers (Chapter 7 in EurWORK's annual review of working life 2016) reviews recent national and EU level policies and looks into the role of collective agreements in this area.

Read: Eurofound (2013) - Working time and work-life balance in a life course perspective

Read: Eurofound (2009) - Social dialogue, working time arrangements and work-life balance in European companies

See also: Eurofound (2006) - Working time and work–life balance in European companies (overview report of the ESWT)

The Foundation’s Company Survey on Working Time and Work–Life Balance 2004–2005 set out to map the use of a variety of working time arrangements in companies, to assess the reasons for their introduction and their impact. This report presents an overview of the survey’s initial findings. It focuses on aspects such as flexible time arrangements in general, overtime, part-time work, nonstandard working hours, childcare leave and other forms of long-term leave, phased and early retirement and company policies to support work-life balance.