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Study: Flexible work arrangements beneficial to biz and workers

In this Nov 11, 2018, file photo, workers use their laptops at the command center at the headquarters of an e-commerce retailer in Beijing. (MARK SCHIEFELBEIN / AP)

Flexible working-time arrangements and reduced working hours like those adopted during the height of the COVID-19 crisis can benefit economies, businesses and workers, laying the ground for healthier work-life balance, according to a new study published by the International Labour Organization on Jan 6.

The report titled "Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World" – the first to put a spotlight on work-life balance – looked at two main aspects of working time: the working hours and work schedules or arrangements. It analyzed different working-time arrangements and their effects on work-life balance, including shift work, on-call work, compressed hours and hours-averaging schemes.

It found that the COVID-19 crisis measures yielded evidence that giving workers more flexibility in how, where and when they work can be positive both for them and for their employers, in aspects such as improved productivity. Meanwhile, restricting flexibility can bring substantial costs, including increased staff turnover.

"There is a substantial amount of evidence that work-life balance policies provide significant benefits to enterprises, supporting the argument that such policies are a "win-win" for both employers and employees," the ILO report stated

The report, however, cautioned that the benefits of some of these flexible arrangements, such as better family life, may be accompanied by costs including greater gender imbalances and increased health risks.

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According to the study, a substantial portion of the global workforce is working either long or short hours when compared to a standard 8-hour day or 40-hour working week.

More than a third of all workers are regularly working more than 48 hours per week, while a fifth of the global workforce is working short or part-time hours of less than 35 per week. Informal economy workers are more likely to have long or short hours.

In its assessment of the evolution of the working hours during the pandemic, the ILO said working time is one of the key tools that can be used to counter the threats to society and the economy posed by any economic downturn.

Overall, the study said, it appears that the reduced hours of work during the pandemic – in particular the increase in the proportion of workers with short hours of work – "had a positive effect on employment by helping to prevent job losses".

A woman carries a computer monitor in order to enable her to work from home, while she walks along a street in Canberra on Aug 12, 2021. (ROHAN THOMSON / AFP)

However, this phenomenon was concentrated in more developed countries. In the case of telework, it was concentrated in countries with relatively good IT infrastructures and large numbers of workers in teleworkable jobs.

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The study said that without the use of working hours as an adaptation tool, the only options left in many cases would be either to "pay for pandemic countermeasures to protect the health of the population" in the form of lockdowns or restrictions of economic activity, fueling unemployment or economic inactivity among the working population, or to forgo the pandemic countermeasures for these reasons and be forced to accept the risk to health of older population group.

"There is a substantial amount of evidence that work-life balance policies provide significant benefits to enterprises, supporting the argument that such policies are a "win-win" for both employers and employees," the ILO report stated.

"The so-called ‘Great Resignation’ phenomenon has placed work-life balance at the forefront of social and labor market issues in the post-pandemic world," said Jon Messenger, the lead author of the report.

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"This report shows that if we apply some of the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis and look very carefully at the way working hours are structured, as well as their overall length, we can create a win-win, improving both business performance and work-life balance."