work-life balance

Flexible working is making us work longer

Flexible work is on the rise but research shows it often leads to people working longer hours than they would otherwise.

Imagine if you could work whenever and wherever you wanted to. Would you work less and enjoy more time with family and friends? Or would you end up perpetually working, have work spill over into the rest of your life?

Many do not have to imagine what this freedom is like. Roughly a third of all employed workers in the UK have flexibility over their working hours and about a fifth of people work from home on occasion. Across the EU, about 17% of all employed workers have access to flexitime, which means their work start and finish times are flexible. Another 5% have full autonomy over when and how long they work.

Contrary to what you might expect, those with more control over their work schedule work more than those with less control. In fact, people have a tendency to work more overtime hours once they are allowed to work flexibly, compared to when they were not.

These were the findings of research my colleague Yvonne Lott and I recently carried out, published in the European Sociological Review. We examined data that followed workers across a number of years in Germany to see what happened to the amount of overtime they did once they started having more control over their working hours.

Play

We found that this tendency for people to work more when given greater control held true even when we took into account a whole range of factors that influence your likelihood to work longer, including level of authority and type of job. And this increase in working hours was greatest when workers had full autonomy over their working hours.

These findings match with similar research I’ve been working on with my colleague Mariska van der Horst on UK workers, and due to be presented at a conference in September. We’ve found a similar pattern: when workers have more autonomy over their working hours they are likely to increase the length of time they work.

Why work harder?

There are several reasons behind this pattern. One could be explained through the gift exchange theory. That is, people treat the freedom given to them by their employer as a gift, which they reward with harder work, as well as seeking to show that they can be trusted with the gift of autonomy.

Another reason may be due to the way in which autonomy is given to people. In many cases, it is provided as a part of a larger human resource package where work is detached from specific time, is more task based, and in many cases, income is determined by performance outcomes. This may incentivise people to work harder and create a stronger competition between workers, but also allows employers to increase workloads without being confined by labour laws which regulate for example the maximum number of hours workers can work.

The relaxed boundaries between work and other spheres of life may also lead to the encroachment of work onto leisure or family life, especially for those who are devoted to or prioritise their work. This is why people in more high-powered jobs may be more likely to experience this autonomy paradox, where freedom over your work ends up with self-exploitation. Elon Musk, for example, works 80 to 100 hours a week and in Silicon Valley the number of hours people work is celebrated and even boasted about.

Flexibility does not have to be all bad. There is a lot of research showing how for some autonomy and control over your work can potentially increase work-life balance. In our paper, we also found that workers earn more when working flexibly, beyond the income gains from simply working longer. So there is evidence of career premiums when working in this way.

Elon Musk: workaholic?  Steve Jurvetson, CC BY
Elon Musk: workaholic? Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

Gender divide

We also found some discrepancies between men and women. Women who work part-time do not work as many overtime hours as men do when working flexibly. This is most likely because women who work part-time usually do so because of family demands, so there is a limit to how long they can work.

But full-time working women do as many overtime hours as men when working flexibly, even when they are mothers. And yet we found they did not reap the same rewards in terms of pay as men. This may be because when flexibility is used for personal reasons, employers may not reward its use.

Plus, employers tend to believe that women use flexibility mainly for family-friendly purposes, which results in women not being rewarded in the same way as men when using flexibility – regardless of the increase in their devotion to work they exhibit. So an increase in flexibility at work may lead to the enforcement of traditional gender roles and increase the gender gap.

Greater flexibility and autonomy over work sound great – and could well herald a new era of better work-life balance. But so far much of the evidence points to the opposite and we need to better understand exactly what’s going on to tackle some of these negative consequences. Existing labour laws protect workers from being exploited by employers. Perhaps what we need now are laws that can help protect workers from exploiting themselves such as France’s proposed “right to disconnect” to regulate out-of-hours emailing. Freedom doesn’t have to be slavery – we just need to make sure we know how to handle it.

Heejung Chung, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, University of Kent.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.