In our latest ActionWomen podcast, we look at evidence that part-time work makes employees work harder and smarter, and reduces our carbon footprint. But if that’s so, why are part-time jobs still so rare, and why are they still perceived as career stoppers? Let’s discuss the possibilities of part-time work in the context of productivity, mental health, work-life balance, climate change and diversity and inclusion at work:
Victoria: Let’s talk about a topic that most of the women in the world know very well: working part-time. Often part-time work is referred to as the worst of both worlds? Why is that so?
Yasmine: Well, first of all I think flexible working and work-life balance is in a way what we all want. Who wouldn’t want more time for their hobbies, their families, for themselves. The fact that five days a week is considered a full working week is quite arbitrary. People used to work six days a week with Sundays off for church. The five-day working week for example became widespread during the Great Depression, when there weren’t enough jobs to go round, and rather than have masses of people unemployed, companies reduced the working week for all but kept the workers on the same pay. And from then on, studies have consistently shown that having two days off each week reduces absenteeism and has a positive effect on productivity.
So effectively at that point, working five days a week actually reduced working hours. And now of course, anything less than five days a week is considered part-time, and that word itself now has a negative connotation, don’t you think?
Victoria: Well, I work part-time or 80% of what’s called a full-time week, and I like the extra time that it gives me, to sing in my band, spend time with my family, get involved in local politics and contribute to the community projects of my housing cooperative. So I’m all in favour of part-time work and flexibility, and it enables me to contribute to the communities that I’m part of, but yes, I do think that part-time work can be a bit of a trap.
Yasmine: Okay, well, you’re very close to the topic, what do you think are the drawbacks of part-time work?
Victoria: I think the issue with part-time work is two-fold: On one hand you yourself have to manage your schedule really carefully – you might think, oh, I have all this extra time on my hand, but there’s always the temptation to do an extra hour here, an extra hour there, and let’s say you work 4 days a week and do an extra hour or two a day, then that’s your entire free time taken up with what’s essentially unpaid work. Also, on the topic of time management, I think it’s important to agree with your partner that the part-time status shouldn’t mean that you take on all of the housework because „you only work part-time“, after all, who wants to give up their paid job in order to spend more time cleaning the toilet or doing laundry? So you have to be quite disciplined with your spare time to keep it spare and not put in lots of unpaid labour, be it at work or at home.
Yasmine: Okay, that makes sense. Studies show how part-time working mothers often end up working more unpaid overtime – working full-time but getting paid part-time: The researchers suggest this increase may be because part-time working mothers feel the need to work longer to compensate for the possible stigma, perceived or otherwise, attached to them by other workers.
And definitely something that your partner needs to buy into – making clear that you are reducing your hours for a specific reason, and that reason is not to do a bigger share of the menial work at home.
And then you mentioned a second issue with part-time work, what’s that?
Victoria: The second aspect that needs to be considered is what part-time working does to your career.
When women go part-time after having kids, some people call that „going on the mummy track“. And the mummy track is not the super fast highway to promotion – it’s the track that goes slowly, and it’s the track that goes right past all the promotions, because you know you „only“ work part-time.
And let’s say you are not a mother, and you are working part-time because you have caring commitments, maybe for your parents, or because you have a hobby or passion or sport you pursue outside work – the same rule still applies: In Germany, you are marked as being „freizeitorientiert“, which basically means leisure oriented, and that then makes you „nicht fuer Aufstieg vorgesehen“, or not the type of person who will be promoted at work, because you are not giving it all your all. And then there’s of course the lack of visibility or presence in the workplace – during the 25% of time that you are not there, you’ll miss out on meetings and opportunities to climb the career ladder.
Yasmine: I agree, going part-time is like a kiss of death to your career. So many of my friends and colleagues who work part-time have been told that they cannot get promoted because „you can’t do the more senior roles part-time“. And when it’s pointed out that there are senior people in those positions who actually are working part-time, the illogical justification is used that yes, but, those people went part-time AFTER they got the more senior role. Truth is that working four days instead of five is hardly part-time, and that your average worker or middle manager surely wastes 7 hours a week in unproductive ways, and that part-time workers of course also do overtime. So if your official working days are Monday to Thursday, does that mean you never do any overtime, answer emails in the evening and read documents late at night? Of course you do. And bang, you are a “part-timer” who does full-time work on a reduced salary, while being denied opportunities for promotion and training. And that’s a real trap that women fall into. And that’s when honestly part-time work is the worst of both worlds.
And of course you can say „but Yasmine, part-time work should not be a barrier to promotion, because there are employment laws that say so“. Well, that’s true, but we know that discrimination happens despite that.
Victoria: As ActionWomen our goal is to talk about the truth but find a positive way in dealing with the problem. How can part-time be used more effectively?
Let’s take a look at Scandinavian culture. There’s one high-profile study in Iceland, conducted from 2015 to 2019, followed more than 2,500 government workers across various workplaces that went from 40-hour weeks to either 35 or 36-hour weeks with the same pay. The researchers found that the majority of offices saw productivity either remained the same, or even improved. For example, in the Reykjavík accountancy department, workers processed 6.5% more invoices once they started working fewer hours; at a police station, meanwhile, the shorter workweek didn’t negatively affect the number of investigative cases closed.
Yasmine: Interesting. There’s also a 2021 study which followed Swedish workers for a decade, and which showed that reduced working hours reduced stress, exhaustion and negative emotions. A 2017 study showed that cutting working hours by 25% improved sleep and lowered stress, and the same year, Swedish researchers found nurses who worked 35 hours a week instead of 40 took fewer sick days, which reduced employer costs. Plus, if burnt-out people quit – something that’s becoming more common – the company incurs costs to replace them, and loses the expertise of the person who leaves.
If individual companies and the economy as a whole are to reap the full benefit of the flexibility part-time work can offer, then more types of jobs and levels of management must be opened to part-time workers.
Victoria: Generally, fewer hours also mean a more streamlined schedule in workplaces. “Things like excessive meetings and extended lunches get cut down“. That’s what happened in the Icelandic trials; in some cases, managers said they replaced meetings completely with email, while others shortened the meetings and only scheduled them before 1500. Time spent for coffee breaks was slashed, and staff were encouraged to run personal errands outside working hours.
Yasmine: Fair enough, although we shouldn’t blame low productivity on personal errands, you have to wonder why despite the internet and all gadgets we have, we haven’t all become much more productive – and certainly the UK has a huge issue with productivity or lack thereof. Certainly most companies I know are always looking to hire more talent, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract the right people and make them want to stay, especially the younger generations who define themselves through things other than work and seek more meaning, like millenials and Gen Z. There are some forceasts that companies could face a global human talent shortage in ten years.
If we want to aim for full employment, where everyone who wants to work can work, then work-from-home and part-time work are some of the tools to enable that. It’s counter intuitive that if you want more people to work for you, you should give them less work, and that’s also going to make your company more productive. So to get everyone working, we need to enable them to work part-time.
Maybe everyone should work part-time? What do you, say, Victoria?
Victoria: Well, the idea of everyone working part-time is surely easier to implement for companies than say universal basic income, and more inclusive in the sense that more people will then be able to contribute to the economy and society than if they are paid to just sit at home. Evidence suggests that one of the biggest advantages of working fewer weekly hours is that it makes people better workers. Plus, there’s evidence that a day off a week could reduce our carbon footprint by almost 30%.
That shows how the world of work could benefit from something many of us women are doing anyways. Working part-time might save the world after all, using less energy but with maximum output, family orientiation, and satisfaction with work and life.
Thanks for the talk Yasmine!
Yasmine: Thank you! So in summary: Fewer hours, better workers, better economy, better for the world!