Policies to improve work–life balance

10 August 2015


Collective bargaining has been crucial in developing recent initiatives on flexible working time in many countries, both at sectoral and at company level. Such agreements, together with some legislation, also cover working with ICT outside an employer’s premises (such as teleworkRead more

Collective bargaining has been crucial in developing recent initiatives on flexible working time in many countries, both at sectoral and at company level. Such agreements, together with some legislation, also cover working with ICT outside an employer’s premises (such as telework). This topical update singles out some original examples in companies in Europe.



Employee-friendly working time flexibility 

Working time flexibility is used in several European countries to help workers have a better work-life balance. Companies mainly use it to allow workers take care of their children, but flexibility can also help improve overall company performance. The amount of flexibility offered depends on the country, which in turn affects how many workers take advantage of it.

Working time has slowly declined over the last few decades in Europe. However, flexibility is now driving major changes in laws and agreements on working time. Working time flexibility can be employer friendly or employee friendly. Uncertain economic times have led to employers needing more flexibility to adjust production times to business cycle fluctuations. On the other hand, employees are increasingly demanding greater flexibility to suit their lifestyles and fulfil their responsibilities outside work.

Flexibility of working time can refer to:

  • the length of working time (overtime or part-time);
  • the organisation or working time (such as staggered working hours, flexible arrangements and working time banking).

This update focuses on 'employee-friendly' organisation of working time and includes initiatives for flexible working time associated with improvements in employees’ work–life balance.

According to the Labour Force Survey Ad Hoc Module on reconciliation between work and family life (2010), flexible arrangements of working time differ significantly from country to country on issues such as:

  • flexitime;
  • working time banking;
  • flexibility within the day – keeping a fixed number of hours and when the schedule is totally determined by the employee;
  • how much control the employee or employer has over a flexible schedule.

In the Nordic countries, Germany and Austria, more workers than the EU average have flexible working arrangements. Workers in central and eastern European countries are least likely to have these types of arrangements. It is also interesting to note the differences in the types of flexible working captured by the the European Company Survey (ECS, 2013). More companies in Scandinavian countries offer flexitime and time banking; in Italy, fixed hours with some flexibility within the day are the most common arrangements.

Figure 1: Employees who work under employee-friendly flexible working time, 2010 (%)

Source: LFS 2010 Ad-Hoc Module on reconciliation between work and family life

Impact of working time flexibility on workers and companies

A 2013 Eurofound report on the organisation of working time using data from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS 2010) showed that variable working hours are associated with greater difficulty in balancing work with other aspects of life, and reported negative impacts of work on health. However, it seems that workers who have control over their working hours (employee-friendly flexibility) are less likely to report a bad work-life balance. Nevertheless, the 2009 European Company Survey (ECS 2009) showed that companies with flexible working time arrangements seem to be doing better financially. Therefore, this kind of arrangement can be good for workers and companies, depending on its characteristics. The same report shows how social dialogue can address changes in the organisation of working time taking into account the company’s production system and the employees’ well-being.

Recent developments in European countries

The EU provides a basic legal framework for the length of working time in its 2003/88/EC Directive. Under its terms, collective bargaining can build on this to vary the length of working time and negotiate its organisation at sectoral and company level. This approach makes sense, since the flexible organisation of working time has to take into account a company’s economic activity. A 2010 Council Directive, implementing the revised Framework Agreement on parental leave, was concluded by European employers’ organisation BUSINESSEUROPE, the umbrella organisation for European SMEs UEAPME, the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services (CEEP) and the European Trade Union Federation, ETUC.

The improvement of work-life balance, especially in relation to parental responsibilities, has been the main driver for recent legislative changes or social partners’ agreements to the organisation of working time. At company level, there have been examples of innovative working time arrangements which benefit worker and company. Indeed, some company initiatives might seem to represent a cultural change, with employers taking a more positive view of employee-friendly flexible arrangements as they recognise the positive consequences for both workers' well-being and their performance.

Rigid working time regulation in central eastern Europe

In central eastern European countries, working time legislation continues to be rather rigid. This is the case in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania. Figure 1 shows few employees with employee-friendly flexible arrangements in these countries. As stated in the 2013 Eurofound report, economic structure also has a big influence on flexible working; for example, it is difficult to implement employee-friendly arrangements such as flexitime in the manufacturing sector (where shift work and night work are common). And indeed, the Eurofound report also found that companies and workers in manufacturing were below the EU average in implementing flexible arrangements.

Countries such as Lithuania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania have made few changes to their laws on flexible working, and most provisions deal only with part-time work. Laws passed in Romania (Laws 40/2011 and 12/2015) for example, leave the decision to move from full-time to part-time working, and vice versa, mainly in the hands of the employer. Croatia’s legislation is more flexible, allowing for irregular working time, which can also be implemented through collective bargaining at company level or individual agreements. In these countries, implementing flexible arrangements in companies seems to rest on whether the social dialogue is strong enough and covers enough workers.

More innovative changes can be found in Lithuania. Here, teleworking has been covered by the Labour Code since 2010 and greater flexibility was introduced for public sector employees in 2012 in relation to 'daily number of hours fixed but with some flexibility within the day'. Similar arrangements were introduced in Bulgaria’s public sector in 2012.

Flexible arrangements in Slovakia and Lithuania

There are few examples of companies implementing flexible working time arrangements to improve workers' work-life balance in Slovakia and Lithuania and these initiatives are not usually a result of collective bargaining. Slovakian companies which have changed the organisation of working time to suit employees’ work-life balance include:

  • Camfil s.r.o.;
  • Levice;
  • Hewlett Packard Slovakia;
  • Kovotvar co-opt Kuty.

The changes introduced are mainly flexitime, staggered hours and teleworking. It is interesting to note that some company policies differentiate between office workers and production workers. Short-term arrangements such as flexitime apply mostly to office workers while production workers are only given the opportunity to use working time accounts (banking). In Lithuania, communication company UAB Omnitel was the first company to implement teleworking to help improve workers’ work-life balance.

In some countries, however, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, the topic is a low priority for social partners.

Increasing support to collective bargaining in Scandinavia

In northern Europe, legislation or agreements on flexible working time are well-established. Although there have been no recent major changes, there have been efforts in Sweden to try to implement new flexible arrangements at company-level through social dialogue, supported by central social partners’ agreements. In Finland, most collective agreements at local level include the opportunity of developing flexible working time arrangements to help improve work-life balance, but there are large differences between sectors in the way these measures are implemented. One example is the collective agreement for the private social services sector, where the social partners published a guide for companies on the benefits of flexible working time. In Denmark, social partners in the manufacturing sector have tried to encourage the adoption of flexible forms of working at local level. The health of employees in public hospitals in Helsinki and their work life balance improved when they were given more time between working shifts (a more employer-friendly form of flexible working).

Different approaches to working time flexibility in western Europe

In the UK, as reported by Eurofound, the right to request flexible working came into operation in June 2014. This covers the standard options for flexible working time arrangements, and the employer retains the right to refuse the request for a number of business reasons. It is not clear if the initiative has led to an increase in flexible working, as many companies had already some type of policy in place.

In France, there has been great controversy over the 35-hour working week introduced by legislation in 2000. Working time flexibility is being promoted at company-level through social dialogue, but not through new legislation. There are several examples of big French companies with new agreements on working time. Banking firm Societe Generale recognises the right to 'switch-off', avoiding intrusion on employees' private lives by defining periods when devices can be switched off and no company emails can be sent. The company has also made a commitment in its 2015 collective agreement to producing guidelines on the use of emails. Another bank, LCL, promised in its collective agreement to try to improve the work-life balance of employees who were parents. The collective agreement for the management consulting group Cap Gemini also provides for improvements in parents’ working time conditions.

In Italy, the recently approved Jobs Act, and the draft laws in relation to work-life balance, are intended to support flexible working time schemes and promote part-time work to meet parents’ needs, including the opportunity to request parental leave on an hourly basis. Companies are offered relief on social security contributions if they address work-life balance through collective bargaining. Social partners at clothing company Lardini Srl. signed an ambitious agreement that covers both flexible duration and organisation of working hours. For example, 'solidarity time-offs' (permessi solidali) allow employees and employers to donate unspent time-off to colleagues experiencing difficulties in reconciling work and family responsibilities. As previously reported in Eurofound, in France employees can also donate unspent holiday time to colleagues with seriously ill children. 

Organisation of working in Austria and Germany

Germany and Austria have a relatively high percentage of workers with access to employee-friendly working time arrangements. According to a Eurofound report, in Germany there is continuing public debate on possible changes to parental leave regulation and the right for full-time workers to work part-time. Sectoral agreements exist in both countries addressing working time flexibility. In Germany the issue is related to demographic change, and teleworking and mobile work using ICT. German company ConSol Software, for example, tries help individuals work in a way that is best for them, as long as company goals are achieved; it offers employees flexibility in working time and place of work (their home or other places outside the employers’ premises).

In Austria, while the statutory working time remains the same, the social partners introduced some new aspects through collective bargaining, including the free time option (Freizeitoption) which allows workers in certain sectors to choose between a wage increase and working time reduction. As a result, workers can reduce working hours to better reconcile work and family responsibilities without losing their existing income. The banking-time model, which was widely implemented during the financial crisis in Germany and Austria, continues to be used. In 2014, a major Austrian Bank developed a new working time model to avoid lay-offs and early retirement which allows employees to voluntarily reduce their working hours to achieve a better work-life balance. Wages are not cut for employees who are over 50 years old.

Cultural changes in Portugal and Spain 

Laws on working time flexibility, especially affecting parents, were changed in Spain (2012) and in Portugal (2009 and 2012). In Portugal this meant that collective or individual agreements could be concluded on different forms of employee-friendly working time flexibility and parental leave. In Spain, major changes included the use of collective or individual agreements to reduce working time and the opportunity for parents to adapt their working day. Spanish oil and gas company Repsol, in an effort to improve employees’ work-life balance, introduced measures to increase flexibility, including telework, time-management, flexitime, and the ability to bank time. In 2015, the Spanish government also approved an initiative to improve the work-life balance of the self-employed. This has been done by reducing social security contributions for self-employed workers who want to reduce their working time due to care responsibilities.


Flexible working time can have positive or negative implications for workers. In some countries, there has been a cultural change making it possible for company-level agreements to be reached that help employees improve their work-life balance. This is an indication that companies are increasingly aware of the benefits of flexible working time for workers and overall company performance.

Although laws in some central eastern European countries have incorporated some elements of working time flexibility, especially in the public sector, the changes have mainly affected the duration of working time with increased access to part-time work.

There have been no major changes to the laws affecting working time in Scandinavia, Austria, Germany or France recently. However in these countries and others, collective bargaining is playing a strong role, both at sectoral and company level, in shaping working time to improve employees’ work-life balance.

In some countries flexible organisation of working time is more developed in particular sectors. However, provisions are being introduced to allow for individual employer–employee agreements. These aspects raise the issue of different opportunities for workers, depending on their job.

Measures introduced include those covering:

  • the self-employed in Spain;
  • workers over 50 in Germany and Austria;
  • the ability to donate time off in Italy;
  • the exchange of wage increases for working time in Austria.

Opportunities for changing from full time work to part time and vice versa have also been discussed or adopted in Italy, Germany and Romania.

Figure 2 shows national differences in the uptake of employee-friendly flexible working time. Considering the different types of reported initiatives and the different characteristics of countries’ industrial relations systems, it seems that the differences between countries will not be reduced in the short term.

Figure 2: Employees working under 'employee friendly flexible organisation of working time', EU and Norway

Source: LFS 2010 Ad-Hoc Module on reconciliation between work and family life

About this article

This article is mainly based on contributions from Eurofound’s network of European correspondents. For further resources on working time, see Working time and work-life balance and EurWORKs industrial relations country profiles.

For further information, contact Oscar Vargas, ova@eurofound.europa.eu

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