Welcome to the 90th edition of Agora. The theme of this edition is “The Evolution of Work-Life Balance “. This theme is important, very actual, and all-encompassing. This is reflected by the length of this Agora, longer than usual, thanks to the numerous and enthusiastic contributors.
The quasi sacrality of work is embedded in the Western civilization. Since the advent of Christianity labor has been seen has a way to a better life and to elevate humanity to higher ideals. The reasons for this, besides the religious aspects, might have been the need to reevaluate work in the eyes of the masses, following the fall of the Roman empire, and its slave labor-based economy.
However, work was not seen as an entity of its own, but as a part, a complement and a fulfilling element of life. With the advent of capitalism and industrialization in the 18th century, work became the engine of progress and was revered as such. It allowed to generate more products, money, prestige and power (at least for a few), but it did not necessarily bring a better life for the many.
In the 20th century the importance of work was not only recognized in the capitalistic world, but by reflection, also in the socialistic world (e.g., “Stakhanovism”). The centrality of labor is still present today in our societies and is even stated in some constitutions (e.g., Italian Constitution, Article 1). Although work is without any doubts a fundamental pillar of our societies, it is not a goal in itself, but only a means to a better life, a better society and a better future.
The notion of work-life balance is relatively recent and can be traced back to the mid 19th century and the first unions and industrial actions. Before that time, the only work-life balance measures were inspired by religious precepts, when followed, like the 6 days week and the religious celebrations. From the mid of the 19th century till today the number of working hours per day and per week have decreased almost universally.
As an example, France had by law per week in 1848 a maximum of 84 working hours, in 1919 a maximum of 48 working hours, in 1936 a maximum of 40 working hours, and in 1998 a maximum of 35 hours. The other Western countries follow analogous patterns.
Similarly concerning the annual leaves, the number of leave days have increased from nil up to the present 2 to 6 weeks of annual leave, depending on the country and other parameters. What is striking and less generally known is that the pressure to reduce the number of weekly working hours did not always come from unions and workers but often from the employers themselves for a better efficiency and productivity (e.g., Ford introducing a 5-days working week in 1926). In more recent times the advantages of shorter working weeks have been recognized by studies, pilot programs and enterprises in many circumstances (see e.g. here ).
It is worth noting that countries that have shorter working weeks, like Denmark and Norway score generally better in terms of efficiency and productivity than the other countries.
The reduction of working time is however not the only parameter to take into account for a better work-life balance. The different articles of this Agora try to tackle and analyze various aspects of work-life balance from different perspectives. Here is a short summary of them.
– In “Unveiling the Power of Disconnecting and Annual leave for Employee Well-being”, Isidoros Tsouros analyzes the trends and policies regarding annual leave in different countries and the potential consequences of insufficient or underutilized annual leave. His conclusions are that the “Right to Disconnect and the utilization of annual leave are crucial for employee well-being and productivity… Adequate annual leave utilization contributes to a healthier, happier workforce, enhancing productivity and reducing burnout ….”.
– In “Reducing Working Hours”, Vassilis Sklias examines the evolution of the working time in the European Institutions and criticizes the recent (2011) increase of weekly working hours at the Commission. According to this paper a reduction of the weekly working time, ideally to 32 hours and 4 days a week, would allow for a better work-life balance, a better productivity and could help reduce unemployment.
– In “Redefining the retirement age”, Carlo Scano reflects on the evolution of the retirement age and its impact on the individuals and the society. He calls for a broad discussion on the subject, suggesting a more flexible and gradual approach to retirement allowing a better knowledge transfer and a smoother transition, which would benefit the employees and the employers alike.
– In “Leaves at the European Commission”, Arty Kyramarios examines and lists the different kind of leaves at the Commission and some recent trends concerning the implementation practices differences and their negative impact on staff well-being.
– In “Burnout risks at the ECB”, Carlos Bowles makes an overview of “the psychosocial risks existing at the ECB, triggered by the imbalance between demands and resources…. burnout risks have reached alarming levels at the ECB… Solutions entail working time reduction and more balance in the employment relation between the ECB and its staff” .
– In “Four-day week: Utopia worth fighting for”, Pedro Gomes makes a short historic of the evolution of the working time and presents a pilot program on the four-day week that he is coordinating for the Portuguese government. The results of the program are encouraging, and many employers are very supportive of the program.
– Last but not least, a series of interviews titled “Balancing Act: Women Redefining Work-Life Balance in Trade Unions” among women engaged in trade unions gives an insight to the work-life issue from a different and more global perspective. Sandrine Coets stresses the problems linked to maternity and more in general to the fact of becoming parent, which is a very stressful moment for work-life balance. Daniela Mormile calls for a cultural change towards gender equality. Vaida Rukaite thinks that work should be seen as part of life and that it is important to be happy with your work. Urszula Mojkowska would like more union secondments at the EU parliament to allow for more women to be able to participate in union activities. Véronique Michel thinks that it is important to accept diversity of thoughts and that women must be offered opportunities and equal pay in recognition of their talents.
This is just an overview of the articles, and of the subject and much more could be said. In particular, a better work-life balance of all workers/employees could surely have a positive impact on the society and on the long-term sustainability of the planet.
I would like to thank the authors, the contributors, and the editorial board. A particular thanks goes to Asmayani Kusrini for her enthusiasm, energy, and continuous dedication in preparing this Agora and the interview.
Have a nice reading,