Debate has heated up recently over the issue of rationalizing work schedules and balancing work life and family life. Yet over the last 50 years, the number of hours that people work has gradually decreased, even as differences emerge between countries. Whereas Koreans are among the hardest-working people in the world, the Dutch are among those who devote the least amount of time to the company. In Spain, the workday is a little higher than the European average but below that of Latin America.


The country with the longest annual working hours on the American continent is Mexico, with a total of 2,110 hours. In general, more time is spent at the workplace in Latin America (an average of 1,952 hours per year) than in the United States (1,819 per year). In Spain, the number of hours is less (1,798 annually) but the workday is longer than in the United States because Spaniards have longer vacations and more holidays. In Chile, the figure is 1,974 hours per year, followed in Latin America by Colombia (1,956), Venezuela (1,931), Argentina (1,903) and Brazil (1,841).


Last year, Spaniards worked an average total of 1,798 hours, which is more than most of their European neighbors who, on average, work only 1,644 hours per year. Spain is a long way from countries such as the Netherlands, where 1,355 hours per year are dedicated to work. Working hours in Spain have been slow to fall: in the last 50 years the workday has fallen by 12%, whereas in the Netherlands it has fallen by 34%. Over the last decade the decreasing trend in Spain has been almost imperceptible, as the workday has decreased by a mere 0.6% according to data from the Groningen Centre for Growth in the Netherlands. In Brazil, the number of working hours has fallen by 13% over the last four decades, which is much more than in neighboring countries such as Chile, where the fall was a bare 2.8%.


The opposite has occurred in South Korea where, instead of reductions, there has been an increase in working hours of 8% over the last fifty years, with the result that the annual work year has risen to 2,392 hours. In fact, the Koreans put in the world’s longest hours. There are still plenty of countries in this 21st century who work more than the psychological barrier of 2,000 hours, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand or Mexico.


Not Because of Working Longer…

When comparing the productivity of an employee with the hours that the employee works, the conclusion is that “there is no correlation” between these variables according to Gayle Allard, professor at the Instituto de Empresa (IE) in Madrid. She goes on to add that “you’re not more competitive because you spend more hours at work.” In fact, the time squandered at work in Spain represents 8.1% of GDP whereas the figure for the U.S. is 7.6%. “It’s not about working more, but working better,” she concludes.


According to Ignacio Buqueras, author of Tiempo al Tiempo (Time to Time), a study on labor conciliation and rationalization of hours, “we are slaves of time” but we also waste it. Buqueras says that Spain is the European country with the most meetings. In his opinion, the business sector is worried because it believes that rationalizing hours means cutting down the workday. However, Buqueras’ idea is to make more efficient use of time, “as working is not the same thing as being at work.” In fact, with the exception of Greece and Portugal, Spain is the European countries with the worst performance at the workplace.


Nuria Chinchilla, professor at IESE and a member of the Public Commission for the Rationalization of Working Hours in Spain, comments that “ the official workday is reasonable in many cases but the real workday is often a reflection of poor team leadership which, in some cases, is detrimental to the health of both the company and the worker and which prevents a balanced lifestyle.” In her opinion, it would be good to go back to solar time, that is, the time used in London, and abandon the Berlin workday, which is what has been adopted in Spain. “Apart from the stress and insatisfaction it generates, the lack of personal and family time turns us into slaves to time and makes us miserly about time. Things have reached such a point that in job interviews the candidate asks about the working hours, a decision criterion which is valued as much as the experience which he or she could expect to gain from working in the company.”


Esther Sánchez Torres, professor at ESADE, believes that a poor distribution of the workday leads to “absenteeism, an increase in psychosocial risks, adverse effects on worker commitment, and the loss of salary bonuses which reward flexibility and dedication to the company in terms of time and other aspects.” However, she recognises that it is difficult to manage working hours because “independently of the times of entry and exit to and from work, the traditional workday has suffered changes. Up until a few decades ago, the population as a whole moved uniformly, that is, the daytime workday was quite homogeneous. Nowadays, this uniformity, and with it what some have called ‘downtown time’, has become a thing of the past.”.


With regard to the relationship between hours worked and productivity, Nuria Chinchilla points out that there have been no reliable studies but that “it is clear” that long workdays cause “burnout” and demotivate in the long run. On this issue she holds the same opinion as Gayle Allard and highlights the fact that despite working more hours than other Europeans, Spaniards have the third lowest level of productivity in Europe. Moreover, “we should check what percentage of pharmaceutical expenditure on ansiolitics and anti-stress medication this situation causes.”


The key, according to Chinchilla, is to lend genuine support, and not only lip service, to companies that are making or intending to make efforts to conciliate the family, work and personal lives of their employees. Among the possibilities are tax incentives or bonus points in public tenders. “Any measures that universalise conciliation, that make it independent of gender, that incorporate the various rights affected (rights to equality and anti-discrimination rights, the right to health, the right to work and the right to a family) and which make adequate provisions for coordination between assistential, labor and social security dimensions deserve a positive evaluation,” she says.


Chinchilla, in her capacity as member of the Public Commission for the  Rationalization of Working Hours in Spain, has set a target of achieving proper labor conciliation “no later than 2010.” Sánchez Torres is less optimistic, but points out that “sufficient tools exist with which to change the situation in a few decades.” However, “the influence of the enlargement of the European Union or the appearance of emerging producer economies makes it harder for any measure which requires changes in the social structure to succeed” and ensure that “quantitative flexibility cannot succeed when the competitor is China,” where people work an average of well over 2,000 hours per year, as occurs in practically all Asian countries with the exceptions of Japan and Pakistan. The same problem is faced by Latin American countries and producer economies such as Brazil, which are low cost from the perspective of multinationals but which have to compete with the rapidly expanding Asian giant.


It Takes Two to Balance
Until recently, when reference was made to balancing professional and family lives, the tendency was to think only about women, as the woman has traditionally and culturally been the one who has taken charge of children. However, it is becoming more and more accepted in industrialized societies that men should not only collaborate in family life but that they should have the same rights as women in this regard.


During the Fifth Congress on Women, Family and Work which took place recently in Madrid, Jane Haaland, the former Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, pointed out that both maternity and paternity are protected by law in her country, where “mothers have the right to a year’s leave when they give birth and fathers have the option of taking six months leave.. The basic thrust of ther argument is that conciliation is an issue of human rights which guarantees “the stability of the family and therefore of society.”


The psychiatrist Enrique Rojas also participated in the congress and explained how important it was that both men and women support conciliation because “this is vital for the existence of a lasting family relationship.” The sociology professor and member of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, CSIC, (High Council of Scientific Research Mª Ángeles Durán posed the following question: “Why is it that dedicating time to the family is a duty, dedicating time to ourselves is enjoyable and dedicating time to work is personal development?” In her opinion, this manner of conceiving things implies that we still have a long way to go.


Representatives of various companies consider that flexibility of working hours, personalized attention and teleworking are some of the balancing methods that make workers feel better and therefore more productive. According to Marieta del Rivero, director general of Nokia Spain, “when one’s personal life is going well, this will be reflected in one’s professional life” and she goes on to add that “it is very important for a company to defend the idea that people should be responsible with regard to what they have to do as opposed to focussing on the hours put in.” In today’s world, the adoption of measures which facilitate a balance between work and personal lives is a competitive advantage which distinguishes a company from others, but in the future the directors consider that this advantage will disappear as conciliation will be obligatory for all companies.