Research Shows Benefits of Flexible/Reduced Work Hours

08 Oct 2014

Studies suggest that reduced working hours and more flexible employment could improve the well-being of Australians, increase productivity and benefit the environment. New Economics Foundation (NEF) compares working habits around the globe and advocates for dramatic changes to current labour codes.

 NEF Head of Social Policy and author of Time on Our Side, Anna Coote suggests that a shorter, more flexible working week will strengthen the economy. Citing earlier reports, she demonstrates ways in which part-time-workers are more productive as well as physically and mentally healthier.

This discussion has been raised among leaders and economists as increasing evidence suggests that the standard 40-hour working week is shifting. Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre Professor John Spoehr said in July that the increasing flexibility in workplaces is an effective way to accommodate families and older workers.   

Experts have observed shorter working hours among countries that are considered to have particularly strong economies.  According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), employees in Germany worked an average of 1,397 hours in 2012, compared to Australia’s average of 1,728. Only 6% of employees worked what the OECD defined as “very long hours”, 3% lower than the OECD average. Shorter working hours have also been linked to lower rates of unemployment.

However, critics have highlighted that these patterns are not always clear-cut. A 35-hour working week adopted as a legal standard in France in attempt to reduce unemployment and create a fairer division of labour. These aims were not achieved and the law has continued to be disputed. 

Nevertheless, shorter working hours appear to benefit the labour force in a range of countries including Germany, Norway and The Netherlands.  Drawing upon early studies, Time on Our Side argues that nations with lower average working hours tend to have smaller carbon footprint and more affordable childcare.  

Anna Coote suggests a range of new measures that can be initiated by employers, such as encouraging workplaces to offer time off instead of a pay raise. Coote also advocates giving employees more legal right to request shorter working hours. While ideas of what a working day should look like vary, there is evidence to suggest that slow changes to the standard model can improve overall productivity and well-being.

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