Less is more: The reduction of working hours

Longer working hours are harmful to health and do not lead to greater productivity.

Anna Ginès i Fabrellas

This article was published in InfoJobs and Esade's report "State of the Job Market in Spain 2023"  

Clearly, the highest profile initiative to have emerged from the Spanish coalition agreement between the PSOE and Sumar has been the reduction of working hours. While a specific legislative proposal is awaited, the Ministry of Labor has announced the gradual reduction of the working week to 38.5 hours in 2024 and, as promised, to 37.5 hours in 2025.  

The reduction of the working week is a necessary measure in the context of the rationalization of working time. According to data from Eurofound and OIT (2019), 22% of workers in the European Union work in their free time and 15% exceed the maximum working hours set. Furthermore, many people find it difficult to disconnect from work; in Spain, approximately 60% check email outside their working hours, compared with 30-40% in other European countries (Time Use Initiative, 2023).  

Long working hours have significant negative effects on people's health. More than 50% of people say they suffer from stress as a result of work (EU-OSHA, 2019), stress accounts for approximately 25% of sick leave, and one in four depressions is related with work stress (Dragioti et al., 2022). And it is in Spain that workers have the worst perception of the impact of work on their mental health: 38% consider that work has a negative effect on their health, compared with an average of 25% in the European Union (Eurofound, 2020). 

Long working hours have significant negative effects on people's health

On top of this, people in Spain finish their working day later than in any other EU Member State: 30% work until 7 pm and approximately 10% until after 9 pm, according to the most recent Time Use Survey published by Spain's National Statistics Institute (INE) in 2010. Ending the working day late also has adverse effects on health, inasmuch as people have less free time and they go to bed later. In this respect, in Spain people play less sport, sleep fewer hours, and take more tranquilizers compared with other EU countries (Time Use Initiative, 2023).  

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, longer and later working hours do not lead to greater productivity. According to a report published by the EAE Business School in 2018, Spain is one of the EU countries that works more hours, but it is also one of the least productive. In fact, one of the conclusions to be drawn from this study is that there is no direct correlation between the number of hours worked and productivity. On the contrary, many empirical studies draw a parallel between greater productivity and an increase in workers' well-being, be this due to sleeping more hours, achieving a better work-family balance, or increased autonomy and flexibility in the management of working time. 

Measures for better organization of working time

The reduction of working hours may therefore be seen as a necessary measure aimed at tackling some of the structural problems in Spain's labor market and guaranteeing a better rationalization of working hours. Nevertheless, although necessary, this measure is not sufficient, and others are required in order to achieve a more balanced organization of working time. Firstly, there is a need for a more egalitarian organization of working time that will lead to a better work-family balance. The unequal distribution of care tasks between women and men results in greater time poverty among women.  

To be specific, 24% of women in Spain claim they are time poor, a percentage that rises to 35% for those with children (Time Use Initiative, 2023). In fact, in Spain, both men and women's perceived capacity to achieve a work-life balance is below the European average (Eurofound, 2020).  

Women account for 88% of unpaid leave taken for childcare and 78% for care of family dependents

The way that working time is organized at present makes it difficult and, in some cases, impossible to reconcile work and family responsibilities. Many people – mainly women – feel obliged to reduce their working hours, take unpaid leave, work part-time, or sacrifice their professional career in order to perform care tasks satisfactorily. According to INE data from 2022, women account for 74% of part-time contracts, 88% of unpaid leave taken for childcare, and 78% taken for family dependent care. There is no doubt that the exercise of these rights – notwithstanding the individual interest of those who take advantage of them – has an impact on the wage gap and on women's opportunities for promotion and professional growth.  

Consequently, in addition to the reduction of working hours, which can clearly contribute to a better life-work balance, other measures need to be adopted. These include broadening the options for reducing working hours – admitting, for example, a discontinuous or irregular reduction – or extending the conditions of leave, including payment corresponding to the recently introduced parental leave, as established by Directive 2019/1158 on work-life balance.  

Secondly, it is important to offer people greater transparency and predictability with regard to their working hours. Beyond the lack of flexibility or autonomy in the management of their working time, some people have highly variable and totally uncertain working hours. Clearly, uncertainty over working hours contributes to time poverty, since the worker is unable to organize their private and family life around their working obligations. 

More pressure should be placed on companies to inform employees about the details of their working time

It is essential, therefore, that people know the length of time they will be working, and more pressure should be placed on companies to inform workers about all aspects of their working time – working day, schedule, regulations on overtime, etc. – in line with Directive 2019/1152 on transparent and predictable working conditions. Moreover, people with unpredictable or variable working days must also be offered transparency and predictability regarding their working time. In these cases, despite the variability of the working hours, a minimum of predictability and transparency must be ensured through information about the days and time slots that the person may be required to work, giving a minimum of notice, etc.  

Thirdly, there is a need to guarantee healthier working hours through measures such as extending time away from work to two days a week or reinforcing the right to digital disconnection, in order to ensure that workers benefit from appropriate rest. Other measures required include compacting the working day and limiting interruptions, especially in the case of the part-time contract, a highly feminized contract in which working time can be excessively extended due to many interruptions. Finally, reform is required of the regulations governing shift work and night work, with a view to preventing the health problems that may arise due to the nature of these types of work. 

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