Beware the stealthy expansion of our working lives

IQ: Can we effectively regulate for a work-life balance?

Our workload expands to fill the time allocated to it

Our workload expands to fill the time allocated to it


The perpetually elusive “work-life balance” was much-discussed this week with news of two workplace initiatives addressing the problem.

In one widely reported development, it was suggested the French are going to ban work-related emails after 6pm, thereby allowing workers “to enjoy the rest of that lovely ‘work/133-hours-per-week-of- life’ balance”, as the Guardian put it.

In fact, something seems to have been lost in translation in those reports, as it transpires that the development merely referred to two groups of employers reaching agreement with French unions outlining an “obligation to disconnect” among certain classes of freelance workers not currently governed by the 35-hour working week.

However, the phenomenon of smartphone-related labour creep, with work-related tasks following you around so that merely leaving the office in no way means the end of the working day, is a matter of real concern. The French “obligation to disconnect” follows a similar movement in Germany – back in 2011, Volkswagen banned work-related email after certain hours, and the German labour ministry followed suit last summer.

Swedish experiment
Meanwhile, it was also announced this week that a Swedish experiment will see one group of municipal workers in Gothenburg going down to a six-hour work day, while a comparatively unfortunate control group will stick with seven hours of toil.

The city hopes to determine whether shorter working hours will result in long-term savings with reduced sick leave and higher productivity.

While the experiment’s long-term results will be fascinating to hear, it’s hard to see how it will not lead to an immediate boost in hourly productivity – in the real world, there’s very few of us who need every last minute in the eight-hour working day to accomplish our workload. Like a gaseous substance spreading out in a room, our workload expands to fill the time allocated to it, and industrial norms mean that time tends to be eight or so hours a day.

A glance at average working hours across Europe is enough to understand that more time does not lead to more productivity – the Greeks, for instance, clock an average of more than 2,000 work hours a year, the second-highest in the OECD, but their productivity pales in comparison to the Germans, who spend a much more sensible 1,400 hours working every year, but with productivity about 70 per cent higher than the Greeks.

It is telling that these developments happened in two countries with a particularly enlightened approach to balancing work and life.

Workers’ rights
These experiments also run counter to a particularly pernicious characteristic of latter-day capitalism, which promotes “labour reform” and “labour flexibility” as a key ingredient in maintaining a healthy, growing economy – the reform and flexibility, of course, ultimately coming at the expense of workers’ rights.

While it’s impossible to legally enforce an ideal work-life balance for everyone, the news from France and Sweden suggests efforts to keep the working week under control are alive and well.