Low uptake of working time accounts

According to a recent study, employees in Germany are not taking advantage of working time accounts, which have opened up the possibility of greater working time flexibility. Deficits in staffing and work organisation on the part of employers mean that there are also challenges in implementation.

A recent study on flexible working time arrangements offers an insight into how companies manage working hours and how employees juggle their time in order to balance the demands of career and private life.

The study (in German) is based on a research project coordinated by the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB), in cooperation with the ISO Institut Saarbrücken (ISO) and the Institute for Sociology at Hannover University. It was funded by the Hans-Böckler-Foundation.

Aim of the study

The research investigates the level of autonomy employees have in using their time credits, and whether the new working time arrangements can help them achieve a balance between work and private interests. It analyses the different time options available through working time accounts and looks in particular at the use of spare time blocks. These are defined as leisure time breaks of more than one working day, which open up the possibility of substantial periods of time off.

The research does not look at a more long-term use of time over the course of working life, which is the focus of a recent study by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.


The study is based on five company case studies from four different sectors: manufacturing, social services, financial services, and ICT (two case studies). Each of the companies was identified as a leader in the sector and each has introduced a works agreement offering the option of spare time blocks.

The following table illustrates the different time arrangements in place in each company:

  Time arrangements
Company A Flexitime account: up to 35 minus hours and 70 plus hours for overtime work, within a three-month period.
Company B Flexitime account: up to 30 minus hours and 100 plus hours; time credits can be transferred to'long-time account'.
Company C Monthly duty roster schedule planning by employees.
Company D Flexitime account: up to 16 minus and plus hours, within a two-month period. Overtime account within a three-month period, and an annual leave account.
Company E Long-time account: up to 1,000 plus hours; time off can also be balanced by reduction in income.

In each company, different groups of employees were included, to allow for a range of qualification levels and life profiles. Altogether, interviews with 73 employees and 20 experts took place.

Key results

The study concludes that, while time accounts certainly offer a range of new time options to employees, there can be a downside in terms of risks to personal health. This is because the irregular working hours and difficulties in scheduling arising from working time accounts can result in increased work pressures. On the positive side, breaks from work can give employees an, often much needed, opportunity to sustain their performance and creativity in the long run.

Figure 1 shows the use of time credits within the sample. It can be seen that shorter periods of time off are more common. Many employees find a longer period of time off attractive but the practical arrangements difficult to manage. Longer periods of leave are more common among men than among women.

Time credits

Advantages for the company

The economic situation of the companies and availability of staff are fundamental factors in being able to offer flexible time options for employees. Employees recognise that better staff arrangements and work organisation could facilitate them in achieving a work-life balance.

All the case studies found that companies perceive time accounts as a useful instrument for adapting to market demands. The companies show little interest in their staff going on longer periods of leave, particularly their highly qualified personnel. Such use of time credits is discouraged.

New pressures on employees

A large number of employees prefer regular working time arrangements, as increased working time flexibility can undermine the stability of private arrangements. In addition, flexible working time arrangements create new demands for employees in general. They have to:

  • be available when required due to an increase in orders, customer demands or production capacity;
  • be able to balance work-related, family-related and social demands;
  • organise their own arrangements which means getting agreements within teams and work contexts regarding the use of their time credits;
  • learn to deal with time options in a wider time framework and develop strategies to realise their time preferences.

Employees are confronted by complex external demands and limited personal resources of time, information and the ability to assert themselves. The researchers describe this pressure as ‘balancing stress’.


Eberling, M., Hielscher, V., Hildebrandt, E. and Jürgens, K, Prekäre Balancen, Flexible Arbeitszeiten zwischen betrieblicher Regulierung und individuellen Ansprüchen , edition sigma, Berlin, 2004.




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