Working time - Q1 2014 (EurWORK topical update)

18 februari 2015


Work–life balance

The balance between working and non-working time is widely recognised as one of the important factors contributing to workers’ health and well-being. It may be crucial in determining the length of a worker’s career while simultaneously contributing to the level of perfoRead more

Work–life balance

The balance between working and non-working time is widely recognised as one of the important factors contributing to workers’ health and well-being. It may be crucial in determining the length of a worker’s career while simultaneously contributing to the level of performance of an organisation. Improving work–life balance continues to be discussed widely across the European Union.

Trade union representatives from around Europe in the audio-visual and live performance sectors met in Brussels on 20–21 January to discuss the issue. UNI Media Entertainment and Arts (UNI-MEI), the International Federation of Musicians (FIM), the International Federation of actors (FIA) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), organised a seminar in the framework of a European project on work–life balance in the sectors. It was the final event of the project which examined the situation in France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Initiatives such as encouraging fathers to work shorter hours and arrangements regarding night-time childcare to accommodate the requirements of the sectors were presented during the seminar and summarised in a joint document issued in July: ‘European recommendation in the audiovisual and live performance sectors’.

Gender issues

Work–life balance can also determine the participation of men and women in employment and is usually integrated in the wider discussion of gender equality issues. A ‘good’ or ‘bad’ work–life balance may determine an individual’s decision to enter, stay in or leave the labour market. On 8 March, around 100 women's rights and social justice activists, joined by trade union representatives and members, organised a protest through Zagreb to mark International Women's Day and to voice their opposition to the draft of the new Labour Act regarding changes in working time in Croatia. The protesters claimed that the draft Act promotes insecure forms of labour and extends the working week, negatively affecting work–life balance. It would affect in particular women, pregnant women, elderly workers and persons with disabilities and would make the position of young women on the labour market more difficult. Activists called for the following measures: a working week of up to 40 hours and eight hours overtime, fixed-time employment contracts for no longer than two years, a limit on the number of fixed-term employment contracts per company and the reinstatement of women in the same job after maternity leave.

According to the research carried out by the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta, half of Maltese women have not been engaged in permanent employment because they have been drifting in and out of work according to their household and family demands and circumstances. During a public debate on 2 April 2014 held by the Malta Confederation of Women's Organisation (MCWO), the research expert stated that only around 20% of female workers manage to find a reasonable work–life balance in Malta. This lack of work–life  balance is having an effect on childbirth and could contribute significantly to Malta’s fertility rate of 1.5, one of the lowest in the EU (according to official estimates, the fertility rate must be maintained at 2.1 to replace the population of a country, in the absence of migration).

Workers’ preferences concerning working time are one of the indicators for the assessment of the ‘quality’ of workers’ work–life balance. According to the most recent findings of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), based on the Socio-economic panel data (SOEP), if men and women had the chance to decide on their weekly working hours (without wage compensation), female full-time workers would opt to reduce their weekly working time by 2.2 hours – to 30.3 weekly working hours – and male full-time workers would opt to reduce their working week by 4.1 hours – to 38.3 hours.

Sweden: Caring for sick children

However, achieving a satisfactory work–life balance is more complex when children are brought into the picture. In Sweden, for example, the phenomenon of working while caring for sick children is called ‘vobba’. According to the annual survey on working habits carried by trade union Unionen, almost 60% of workers perform ‘vobba’: they report doing work when they are home with a sick child. The pattern is most evident for men, managers and those with a high level of education;  remarkably, one third stated they wished they did not have to work while at home with a sick child.

Austria: Availability of childcare facilities

The working time arrangements at the workplace and the availability of childcare facilities are also crucial elements in determining quality of work–life balance. According to a representative survey of employees with at least one child under the age of 12 living in the same household, conducted between June and October of 2013 (570 employees of the private sector) in Austria, only 43% of the respondents said that working hours in their company were family friendly. The study, commissioned by the Federal Chamber of Labour AK Vienna and carried out by L&R Social Research, indicates that over one third of respondents (38%) stated that more full-day childcare institutions should be available. In fact, only 8% of the respondents reported having access to full-time care services for their children.

UK: Challenges faced by older women workers

Workers’ work–life balance requirements change throughout life with the occurrence of different events. The challenges faced by workers with children are certainly different from those workers with grandchildren, for example. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), from the UK, published a report in February looking at the work–life challenges faced by older women workers: Age immaterial: women over 50 in the workplace. The report underlines that the complex and often multiple caring responsibilities faced by women over 50 – and the failure by many employers to help them balance work with their other responsibilities – make the continuation of their careers particularly difficult. The report calls for the introduction of new employment rights including five to 10 days of paid carer's leave a year, an unpaid leave entitlement for grandparents and a period of statutory adjustment leave to help with sudden changes to caring responsibilities and crises at home.

Weekend working

On 21 January 2014, the European Sunday Alliance officially launched a ‘Pledge for a work-free Sunday and decent work’, ahead of the 2014 European elections in May. The initiative aimed to get the backing of European politicians for the promotion of a common weekly day of rest, as well as a legal framework guaranteeing sustainable working time patterns based on the principle of decent work. The Alliance points to the advantages of such an arrangement:

a work-free Sunday and decent working hours are of paramount importance for citizens and workers throughout Europe and are not necessarily in conflict with economic competitiveness.  Especially in the present time of socio-economic crisis, the adoption of legislation extending working hours to late evenings, nights, bank holidays and Sundays has direct consequences for the working conditions of employees and for small and medium sized enterprises. Competitiveness needs innovation, innovation needs creativity and creativity needs recreation.

Norway: Hospital employees

Working during weekends is an issue usually related to the particular operating times of each sector. In Norway, for example, there is an ongoing debate between the social partners in the hospital sector regarding work on weekends. Nurses typically work every third weekend but employers’ organisation Spekter is eager for them to work every second weekend. According to the Norwegian legislation, this would require an agreement between the social partners but the Norwegian Nurses Organisation (NSF) has not been willing to enter into negotiations. NSF argues that most of their members are already doing rotation/shift-work, and that this involves some negative health effects for the workers. Furthermore, working more weekends would lead to less time spent by workers with their families and friends. However, Spekter argues that nurses will have to work more weekends to reduce the number of part time workers.

Belgium: Shop assistants

A survey of shop assistants regarding Sunday work in Belgium carried out by the National Confederation for Employees (LBC-NVK) and Union of Employees, Technicians and Professional and Managerial staff (SETCa-BBTK) shows that only 20% of respondents said they were prepared to work another Sunday per month and that almost 30% of shop assistants declare they will consider another job if they are obliged to do extra Sunday work.

About this article

This article is based mainly on contributions from Eurofound’s network of national correspondents. Further resources on working time issues can be obtained from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) and European Company Survey (ECS).

For further information, contact Jorge Cabrita:

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