The current working model of eight hours a day and five days a week has been astonishingly persistent. Recent experiments with lesser working time, however, have garnered attention, and the results of these have been closely followed by a researcher of working time, Timo Anttila, senior lecturer from the University of Jyväskylä. Might these results create an impulse for changes in working time?
An experiment with shorter workweeks was recently carried out in Great Britain, and its success has received significant attention worldwide.
Perhaps even more than previous experiments, says Timo Anttila, who has studied working time, its changes and impacts for nearly thirty years.
“After such an experiment, people often ask why not here, in our context as well,” Anttila says.
In Finland, we have had relatively few experiments with shorter working time. The last ones were from the years of economic recession in the 1990s.
More recently, such experiments have been easy to reject using the excuse of labour shortages and the workforce needs of the aging population.
New international experiments are now encouraging reflection on the benefits and drawbacks of shorter working hours.
“Have there been any such changes that we should now really reconsider our working time patterns?” Anttila asks. “Could it actually be a competitive asset for enterprises? It would be a novel approach.”
Other challengers to the slowly changing normal working hours have also emerged.
Working time patterns in Finland from the 1960s – irregular working time most usual in expert posts
Sociologists studying working time have to look in many directions, since working time and its changes have long-ranging effects on a range of issues, including individuals’ well-being, the balance between work and family as well as the mutual division of labour and equality between genders.
Finland adopted the eight-hour workday model in 1917. In the 1960s, Finland became one of the first countries in Europe to adopt the five-day, 40-hour workweek.
Since then, the big picture regarding working time in Europe has remained stable, with most work done on weekdays and during the daytime. Working hours are distributed across the five weekdays from Monday to Friday, followed by a free, two-day weekend.
During the past couple of decades in Europe, this model has been amazingly stable, with only a few deviations. The share of both shorter than normal and overly long workweeks has remained almost unchanged. The service-intensive economy has increased the amount of shift work, but quite moderately.
Atypical working time refers to settings where the numbers of weekly working hours vary, or the working hours are distributed more broadly across the day instead of a single unbroken workday.
The share of this kind of work has increased and is increasing all the time in many fields.
In Finland and other Nordic countries, atypical working time is slightly more common than in other European countries.
“In Finnish society, knowledge-intensive work dominates and therefore exceptional working time arrangements are more frequent,” Anttila says. “Measured by working hours, overly long workweeks are most frequent among men in expert roles. Overall, the share is not significant, however.”
The intensification of work and the 24/7 pace are challenging the model of normal working time
The normal working time of the industrial age is a social construct that forms a fundamental element for our interaction as well, Anttila says.
A shared working time model is a prerequisite for social interaction, and there is research evidence that deviations from it also decrease social interaction.
“There is evidence from various on time-use data, for instance, that if a family’s shared time is moved from weekends to weekdays because of working time, it decreases that shared time,” Anttila says.
The normal working time has been sustained by arguing that it reflects the biological circadian rhythm of humans. Working time is also strongly protected by legislation – research findings show that overly long working time and shift work are rarely experienced as desirable and also pose a health risk.
Anttila points out that the structures of normal working time have remained unchanged, though in many white-collar jobs the ability to adjust personal working times have already increased to a remarkable extent.
The normal working time is challenged by the increasing presence of the 24/7 principle: production and services are provided while there is demand for them.
Many people’s work is also tied to global timetables across time zones.
“The intensification of work brings its own impacts on working time. The experience of being in a hurry has increased in recent years. Individual employees’ responsibility has grown with respect to how and at which time of the day they do their job,” Anttila says.
“Responsibility has become more personal. Technology has also brought along new ways for work supervision, which may bring about performance pressures as well.”
The COVID-19 pandemic indicated potential for change – What did the British experiment teach us?
For those jobs we perceive as stable, the pandemic demonstrated that there is potential for various kinds of changes.
“The pandemic was a shock that quickly changed the way of working,” Anttila says. “Researchers knew that there was the potential for this. Work transformed amazingly fast. We also saw that no economic catastrophes occurred and that production did not collapse.”
The British experiment with shorter working times also showed that there can be potential in changes, Anttila states.
In the British experiment, working time was cut to a four-day week for six months in nearly 60 companies in the latter half of 2022. Positive experiences of shorter working times have been heard from Sweden and Iceland as well.
Anttila does not believe, however, that shorter working times would be adopted to any larger extent in the present situation.
“Or will we see some emerging consumption-critical movement, a generation that earns less and invests more in free time,” Anttila wonders.
Economists have been sceptical about the impact of shorter working time to increase productivity: when the economy as measured by GDP is shrinking, employment also decreases, says Professor of Health Economics Petri Böckerman from the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics.
Shortened working time is also an example of experiments where the effects are difficult to study, and the results are difficult to generalise in the corporate field.
“The experiments always involve good companies, which means hugely selective sampling,” Böckerman says.
“It is difficult to get corporations committed to any long-term experiments.”
In order to get reliable impact assessments on the effects of shortened working time, the issue should be investigated so that different working time models are set randomly for employees. “This is a challenging setting for research,” Böckerman states.
Statistics-based research – the COVID-19 pandemic made housework more equal between spouses
In the research on working time and related changes, important sources include various long-term time series and statistics. Eurostat’s labour force surveys provide general-level comparative information about working time lengths, for instance. Statistics Finland collects national data on working conditions every five years.
In contrast, in time-use data the research interval is ten years. The most recent dataset was collected in 2020–2021, meaning it also covers how people spent their time during the pandemic.
The research participants have recorded how they spent their time with 10-minute accuracy. This research method gives exact information about changes in time use. Based on this information, you can also infer how changes in working time or remote working, for instance, affect individuals’ social interaction.
“It is especially interesting to follow how social interaction in families has changed during the pandemic, when work entered people’s homes. Who did the dishes? Who spent time with the children?” Anttila explains.
What is already known about the impacts of the pandemic era on working time?
“Preliminary information about the new time-use study indicates that unpaid housework is distributed more evenly, and men have increased the time they spend on childcare. Admittedly, women still do about half an hour more of homework per day than men do,” Anttila tells.
“Men, in turn, do more paid work, and thus overall working time, meaning paid and unpaid work in total, is distributed very evenly in Finland.”
Working time and working life research has had a strong foothold at the University of Jyväskylä since the 1980s. In the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, work is studied from various perspectives. In the field of social and public policy, the focus is on, for example, the quantity and quality of work as well as poor people having a job. Social work studies deal with working conditions in the field of social work, and in sociology the focus is on the work of third-sector organisations and associations.
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