An honest day's work? Considering the nebulous notion of today's work-life balance

Atypical and unpredictable work schedules are on the rise worldwide, thanks to an ever-increasingly connected, responsive and demanding global economy. Consequently, work-life balance in industrialized countries is becoming a thing of the past. A new ILO publication, Decent working time: New trends, new issues, is a collection of papers from some of the leading international scholars in the field and considers the profound changes in the nature of working time - and indeed the nature of employment itself. US writer Jennifer Monroe reports.

Across the industrialized world, working hours are becoming increasingly unpredictable, creating considerable tensions between workers and employers. Changes in the global economy to a knowledge- and service-based focus, consumer demand for access to goods and services 24 hours a day, seven days a week and other economic and social factors are affecting the standard employment relationship - and causing concern about working time and the work-life balance.

To bring to light research on working time, the ILO co-sponsored the Ninth International Symposium on Working Time in Paris in 2004, and subsequent publication Decent working time: New trends, new issues (2006) ( Note 1). Editors Jean-Yves Boulin, Michel Lallement, Jon C. Messenger and François Michon have compiled key papers presented at the symposium to help with the development of policies and practices that support decent working time. Focusing on industrialized countries, the research included in the book represents studies of workers and working time in a number of European Union Member States (particularly France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries), Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to Messenger, for decent working time to exist the working time arrangements must be healthy and family-friendly, promote gender equality, advance productivity and allow employees to have a true choice in the hours they work. While these five dimensions are closely linked, worker control over hours of work (and more importantly the scheduling of those hours) is vital to the creation - or at least the perception - of a decent work-life balance.

Real vs. ideal

Within the quest for decent working time there exists what the ILO calls "decent work deficits" - gaps between required working hours and preferred working hours. As Messenger points out, three primary categories of workers have emerged for whom the decent work gap exists: people who are required to work excessively long hours who want to work less, part-time workers who are required to work less than 20 hours a week who want to work more, and people who have odd work schedules but want stable or standard hours.

Closing these decent work gaps, while maintaining decent working time, is no simple task. As Boulin, Lallement and Michon point out in the opening chapter, "neither work-life balance policies nor life-course working time policies are automatically rooted in the philosophy of decent working time" and "many options offered to employees lead to gender discrimination and social inequalities". Thomas Haipeter's study of the new working time regulation in Germany found that "flexi-time" and "time-banking programmes" are promising, but only when well managed and when there is strong employee participation and autonomy.

Part-time work, it would seem, could work well in closing the gaps for both those who would prefer to work more and those who would prefer to work less. Messenger notes that in general, "short working hours…appears to be a widely employed strategy for balance-paid employment with family responsibilities". In fact, "substantial" hours of between 20 and 34 hours per week are preferred to "marginal" hours of less than 20 hours per week.

However, the majority of part-time workers are female, causing gender segregation of part-time work almost everywhere it exists. To take this point further, Mara Yerkes and Jelle Visser found "danger of marginalization" in the initial growth stages of part-time work in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK because "part-time work developed as a 'second-best' option for many women, particularly working mothers," and "part-time work was preferred to staying out of the labour market, or being unemployed - but not to a full-time job with full rights, earnings and benefits".

While the Netherlands has made some great gains in normalizing part-time work (see sidebar) and Germany is taking a similar approach, part-time work in the UK historically has not been well regulated and has "as a consequence, become heavily associated with marginal employment, low pay and little skills training".

Eliminating the decent work deficit for workers whose hours are not based on a regular schedule may prove the most difficult. According to researchers Jill Rubery, Kevin Ward and Damian Grimshaw, scheduling of employee time is increasingly being used strategically by employers. In some cases, working time is neither agreed nor specified; in others, agreed-upon time is "becoming fragmented into shorter, discontinuous periods and is being scheduled across the week or the year to match the requirements of the employers". Organizations are not looking to return to a more regular time-based approach. In fact, "managers stressed that hours schedules needed to fit with the interests of the employer and/or the clients and customers. To achieve this, a major objective was to regard all hours as equivalent, with no additional costs associated with unsocial or extra hours". Paul Bouffartigue and Jacques Bouteiller's analysis of "temporal availability" among hospital nurses and bank managerial staff in France, Belgium and Spain provides further examples of the growing diversity of types of employment status and situations, while Isik Zeytinoglu and Gordon Cooke ask the question, "Who is working at weekends?" Their answer for Canada (although this must surely be true for other industrialized countries) is that in any society that some people happily imagine is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, weekend workers are often those with a number of disadvantages: lower education and skill levels, temporary contracts and part-time work.

Where workers have a true choice in their work hours (where there are good options available to choose from), there is an increased opportunity for decent working time to exist. Despite the belief to the contrary, Didier Fouage and Christine Baaijens found that among Dutch firms "it is plausible that employers will grant changes in working hours if requested", and that "although employees are reluctant to request adjustment of working hours, their attempts are reasonably successful".

What perpetuates overemployment?

What keeps workers from requesting shorter hours is simple: fear of refusal and fear of a negative impact on their career. In other cases there is the belief that working more, even unpaid hours, is valued as dedication to the company.

Some workers "choose" overemployment to meet preferred earning levels, while others see it as "part of the job". In Jouko Nätti, Timo Anttila and Mia Väisänen's study of knowledge workers in Finland, half had trouble defining their total working hours, with managers and professionals struggling the most in this regard. They also discovered an erosion of "agreed upon weekly working time" and a "stretching" of working hours.

This is similar to Lonnie Golden's study of overemployed workers in the US. Golden's work indicates that overwork is higher among "long-work-week workers and selected occupational classifications such as managers, administrators, scientists, engineers and some technicians, and in industries such as healthcare, utilities and transportation".

In both studies, the long hours seem to be accepted as the norm for managers. This did not, however, impact the number of Finnish workers who would prefer a reduction of weekly working hours. Those who work a long week (41 hours or more) were more likely to prefer reduction of hours compared to those working a shorter week (1 to 40 hours).

At the other end of the spectrum there are those who desire to increase their hours but because overwork exists, there are few opportunities to do so. Again, the research suggests the elimination of the stigma often associated with part-time work or shorter hours. It also suggests that the acceptance of part-time work across all levels of work (hence, "normalizing" part-time work) would go a long way in closing this decent work deficit and promoting healthy and family-friendly working time, as well as gender equality.

Changes in the global economy have brought about a tremendous growth in part-time work, but often these are not career-building positions. Messenger stresses that working time policies can only promote gender equality when they "enable women to be on an equal footing with men in employment" and "enable both partners to combine paid work, family responsibilities and lifelong learning".

Bridging the decent work gap: The Netherlands

Although the Netherlands faced the same initial dangers of marginalization found wherever part-time work exists, the acceptance of part-time work today has led to the one-and-a-half earner household becoming the dominant model. According to Yerkes, "involuntary part-time work is low in the Netherlands, with only a minor gap between women's preferred and actual working time".

What is behind this shift? Both the Dutch Government and social partners supported families in choosing part-time work and shorter working hours as a way to achieve a work-family balance. Policies were put in place to create standards in terms of part-time workers' rights, earnings and equality.

It did not happen quickly - growth of part-time work in the Netherlands lagged behind other European countries until the 1980s when it began to grow along with the number of women entering the workforce to boost household incomes. At first, women chose part-time work due to the lack of daycare options; however, employers embraced its flexibility and cost savings.

In the mid-1990s, legislation made it possible for part-time workers to be covered by minimum wage laws, and to earn pensions. Employers still favoured part-time work, and today part-time positions are found in all economic sectors and across all occupations.

However, more work needs to be done. Although part-time workers are afforded equal treatment and have a choice of quality jobs, part-time work is dominated by women and they remain responsible for the majority of domestic responsibilities.

It does appear that women are, by and large, choosing part-time work. Nearly 60 per cent of all jobs held by women in the Netherlands are part time, the highest in the EU. According to the researchers, "even among younger generations, mothers who have chosen to work part time when raising young children do not return to working full time when their children grow older".

Two major titles to be released shortly

1. Working time around the world
Edited by Jon Messenger
Focusing on developing and transition countries, Working time around the world looks at current law and practice on working time and evaluates the current situation. It discerns trends not only in traditional concerns such as long hours, shift work and inadequate rest periods, but also newer issues associated with deregulation, more flexible working time arrangements, short hours, gender and the informal economy. Despite a century-long optimism about reduced working hours, the study shows that working-hour differences between industrialized and developing countries remain substantial. It also offers some suggestions about how we can begin to close this gap.

2. Working for better times: Rethinking work for the 21st century
Edited by Jean-Michel Servais, Patrick Bollé, Mark Lansky and Christine Smith
This selection of articles from the International Labour Review offers unique insights into current thinking and policy options on the major challenges that have arisen not only in the lives of individual workers but also for employers exposed to global competition, and for the makers of national and international policy and law. At the heart of the debate lies the challenge of reframing the concepts and rules whereby people's socio-economic security and the human dimensions of work can be reconciled with global competition and the market's growing need for labour flexibility. The book includes contributions by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Sir Bob Hepple and Alain Supiot.

For more information, please visit or e-mail

Note 1- Decent working time: New trends, new issues, edited by Jean-Yves Boulin, Michel Lallement, Jon C. Messenger and Fran�ois Michon, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2006.