Working Time and Work-Life Balance – Insights for policy?

ILO published a report on Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World. The chart on average hours of work per week across various geographic regions has been widely circulated in the Indian media. South Asians work the most hours per week with a total of 51.5 hours. East Asians follow closely with 49.4 hours per week. The world average is at 46.2. In contrast, Africa and Eastern Europe are at 39-9 and 41.4 respectively.

Source: ILO Report

The report states –

This first-ever ILO global report on working time focuses on the actual number of hours of work, working-time arrangements (work schedules) and their implications for work–life balance. While limiting the number of hours of work to protect workers’ health has been an important issue for more than a century, the emergence of work–life balance as a significant social goal came much later, stemming from policymakers’ increased awareness of the difficulty workers faced in reconciling their personal lives with their paid work.

Working hours statistics are useful to know. It is also useful to see how they have changed over years and map them with country trajectories – China rises up and come down. India remains almost flat.

However, it might be useful to exercise caution in assuming direct implications of working hours on work-life balance? There are additional variables involved. Those may not have been accounted for. For example – shareholder pressure driving aggressive cost management (See TCI Fund’s letter to Google’s CEO highlighting Google’s costs vs its peers in tech).

Another variable is supply of opportunity in the market – Asian hunger for opportunity drives the workers to make the most of it, climb the class ladder and stay on top. This can drive up the working hours. One might argue that these are fringe variables. But, in a cumulative way they can affect conclusions of surveys like this one from ILO.

Similarly, what might be the explanation for Africa’s average working hours? Structural, cultural or a mix of other unaccounted variables? For a casual visitor to the region, short supply of work opportunities would appear a major reason for less time spent. That is the economic reality of the region as in less developed Indian states like Odisha and Bihar. Men lounge under tree shades because there is only so much paid work to be had. They can drive work-life balance numbers to North American standards.

Lastly, does the balance in work-life balance mean the same across the world? Labour laws helped codifying some of the key ideas of work-life balance. These may not however be the key drivers across all regions and may not be even consistent across all economic sectors.

Cultural attributes of work-life balance may partially explain the incentive to spend more hours working. A different cultural incentive might lead to spending lesser hours at work. For instance, Indians tend to thrive in the sense of being ‘busy’.

The larger idea of working hours reducing with rising per capital incomes as in the chart below seems relevant. However, sifting through working hours alone provides little actionable information for policy action.

Source: ILO Report

Effects of working-time laws and regulations are more pronounced in manual work intensive jobs like driving and working on a factory floor. Amazon warehouses and delivery riders, in terms of new jobs. This is confirmed by charts on working hours in different economic sectors and by major occupational groups.This needs to be tracked for its obvious direct impact on health as well as risk to men and material in their immediate environment.

Source: ILO Report

In summary – more nuance and caution please.

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