Unpredictable working hours endanger ‘work-life’ balance, UN labour agency says

7 June 2006

Working hours across the industrialized world are becoming increasingly unpredictable due to a growing 24-hour-a-day 7-day-a-week economy, creating worker-employer tensions and requiring new policies to counter the risk this poses to the “work-life” balance, according to a new study launched today by the United Nations labour agency.

“The growing tendency to more atypical and unpredictable working hours is having a dramatic affect on workers and employers,” International Labour Organization (ILO) Senior Researcher Jon Messenger said of the study, Decent working time: New trends, new issues.

While working hours are increasing in some industrialized countries and shrinking in others, today’s world of work is characterized by the atypical and unpredictable nature of working time, and the increase in weekend and night work, according to the study presented at ILO’s annual conference in Geneva.

“All of these things are creating increasing tensions which make work-life balance a big issue. Increasingly, we need new policies to help promote this work-life balance,” Mr. Messenger, a co-editor of the study, said.

The study says intense competitive pressures in an increasingly 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week economy are driving companies to tailor working time arrangements more and more closely to market demands. This, in turn, has led to increasingly variable hours of work.

The study says flexible working time is especially critical for workers with family responsibilities, such as women who face the need to balance their working hours with their domestic and care obligations.

Observing these trends and the increasing use of results-based employment relationships, it sees growing “diversification, decentralization, and individualization” of working hours.

Based on existing international labour standards on working time and recent research on working time trends and development focusing on industrialized countries, the study proposes that “decent working time” policies should make sure that arrangements are healthy, family friendly, promote gender equality, advance enterprise competitiveness and facilitate worker choice and influence over their hours of work.


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