Prof Talk | Work less, live better

A workday that starts at 9 am and ends at 3 pm, or an extra weekly day off. Trade union CNV argues for a 30-hour workweek in order to curb the increase in the number of employees with burnout complaints. Trials with a shorter workweek proved successful in several countries, sick leave has reduced spectacularly. Occupational psychologist Evangelia Demerouti (IE&IS) also supports the plans, but at the same warns that it will take more to prevent burnout complaints.

photo Wilhelm Schutz / Shutterstock

Trade union CNV wants Dutch companies to introduce a 30-hour workweek as soon as possible. During the upcoming collective labor agreement negotiations, the union will plead for a new standard, after research showed that there is much support for a shorter workweek in the current work climate. The number of employees suffering from burnout complaints has doubled over the past few years to one in five, partly as a result of the corona crisis. A clear sign that the time has come for a ‘new balance,’ CNV believes.

TU/e professor in Work and Organizational Psychology Evangelia Demerouti has been arguing in favor of a shorter workweek for years. “The use of technology has increased productivity. We produce more work within the same time span, and that’s not just because we work harder. It’s only fair to let the profits trickle down to employees, so that it won’t just be beneficial to employers. It’s for that reason alone that a shorter workweek seems very logical to me.”

In addition, Demerouti’s own research shows that employers who are willing to promote a healthier work-life balance will reap the rewards in the workplace. “A change from a forty-hour to a thirty-hour workweek allows employees to focus more on their personal lives. People often don’t pay enough attention to important matters outside work, such as (informal) care, family life and hobbies. Employers shouldn’t always have to facilitate their employees’ personal lives, naturally, but research has shown that when employers are forthcoming and willing to offer possibilities, employees will in turn be more willing to invest in work. A win-win situation.”

Even though CNV stresses that the shorter workweek is intended primarily to combat burnout complaints, Demerouti expresses some reservations. “A better work-life balance definitely improves mental health. But working fewer hours isn’t enough. It’s true that it seems to reduce sick leave, but you should be careful with these assumptions. People who work fewer hours also call in sick less often, the same is true for people with flexible workhours. That is why a broader perspective remains essential. Because people can also suffer damage when they have a shorter workweek. Creating a safe work environment is one way to prevent burnouts, for example. Employers can keep track of how employees experience their work, and they can supervise their employees more effectively by offering them coaching at the right moment.” Demerouti also points out the importance of a customized approach. “Not everyone should start working thirty hours a week all of a sudden. Working more hours isn’t always an option, especially for women who often combine parttime work with care responsibilities. In order to prevent them from having to quit as a result, which will only a have negative effect on gender equality in the workplace, the option of flexibility should continue to apply for shorter workweeks as well.”

The discovery of a new way of working due to corona is a positive side effect, Demerouti says. “This is a good moment to introduce the shorter workweek. I expect that it will take about five years, but the same is true here: the faster the better. In fact, the new normal is here already. Not that long ago, working from home was ‘not done,’ but now we have to admit that people are more efficient and productive at home than at the office. Think of tasks that require concentration, during which you’re constantly interrupted by your co-workers at the office. In that case, your attic room feels like a blessing. However, the fact the we can return to our offices on a partial basis also has a very positive side. Because no matter how nice it is to work without being interrupted, you can’t do without your colleagues if you want to stay motivated.”

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