What is Working Time?

Working time is the period of time that a worker is engaged in paid labour. Adequate working time represents a key element of working conditions and has a great impact on workers’ income, well-being and living conditions.

While more employees working longer hours can help increase business output, productivity (i.e. output per given unit of input) actually decreases. Excessive working time can also cause issues for the business, such as accidents and poor quality of work due to fatigue. Working long hours can lead to negative mental, physical and social effects. It can create problems for workers, such as the inability to enjoy a personal life, undertake academic or professional development and access services such as medical care during opening hours.

Many businesses have a maximum working hours and overtime policy, as well as other policies on breaks during work, rest periods outside of work and paid holidays. However, many countries do not have adequate laws and protections for workers when it comes to working time and wages, and some businesses are able to take advantage of this by requiring workers to do excessive hours or allowing workers to request excessive overtime if their normal wages are not enough to live on. In such cases, international labour standards provisions are an important benchmark for company policies on working time.

New forms of working time, such as compressed workweeks, staggered working time arrangements, annualized working hours, flexitime and on-call work, offer new opportunities and challenges.

What is the Dilemma?

How does a company ensure it respects relevant international standards and national laws relating to working time when workers are either compelled, have no choice, or operate in a context that makes them accept excessive working time? Workers may be compelled to work longer hours due to production disruptions or excessive orders; or they may seek more hours to earn enough to support themselves and their families. This could also occur in a country where long working hours are accepted culturally or where the Government does not restrict working time or effectively enforce the law.

Ensuring Work-Life Balance Accommodates Family-Friendly Policies

Long working hours affect not only employees but also their families. Family-friendly policies — including paid parental and sick leave, breastfeeding support, affordable and quality childcare, flexible work arrangements and access to minimum social protection measures — are not only linked to better workforce productivity and the ability to attract, motivate and retain employees, but also result in healthier, better-educated children, greater gender equality and sustainable growth. However, for hundreds of millions of workers in global supply chains, basic entitlements that provide them with the time, services and resources to support their families are widely absent.

Working time is a key factor that can either help facilitate work-life balance (e.g. through reductions in working hours and certain forms of flexible working time arrangements) or hinder it (e.g. excessively long hours, unpredictable schedules). Businesses can ensure work-life balance by implementing family-friendly policies aligned with international labour standards on work-life balance.

Prevalence of Working Time Violations

A study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that in 2016, 479 million people or 9% of the global population were working at least 55 hours/week.

Key trends include:

  • The percentage of people working long hours is growing with consequences for employees’ health. From 2000 to 2016, in relative terms, the proportion of the population working at least 55 hours/week has increased by 9%. Long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000. Excessive working hours have also been found to increase injury risk, regardless of the number of normal hours of sleep.
  • An upsurge in flexible, temporary or freelance jobs and ‘gig work’ due to the spread of teleworking, new information and communication technologies, as well as deregulated labour markets, has also increased the trend of increasing working hours. This has led to the blurring of boundaries between working time and rest periods.
  • In many parts of the world, there is a significant link between low wages and excessive working time. The ILO reported that the proportion of workers working excessively long hours is more than double in developing countries as compared to developed countries. In developing countries, long working hours are driven mainly by low wages, which means that workers often need to work long hours to make ends meet. Whereas in developed countries, certain categories of professional workers and managers may be expected to work whatever hours are required to complete their assignments and/or may work long hours to show their commitment to the organization and thus advance their careers.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated a link between low wages and long working hours putting some suppliers and workers in positions of working even more extensive hours.

Impacts on Businesses

Businesses can be impacted by working time violations in their operations and supply chains in multiple ways:

  • Legal risks can occur if a company does not comply with legal limits on overtime hours or does not pay workers for overtime hours worked. If a worker suffers an accident or ill health due to being overworked, a company may also face legal challenges brought by the individual or a union.
  • Operational risks are common when workers are overworked, as they are more likely to make mistakes or underperform in their tasks. This can lead to occupational safety and health incidents at work, accidents while travelling to work (for instance falling asleep while driving home from work after a long shift) and problems with the quality of products being manufactured.
  • The well-being of workers can suffer when working hours are excessive and proper breaks or holidays are not taken. Tired and overworked workers are more likely to have physical illnesses, develop mental health issues such as stress and anxiety, make errors due to fatigue or cause accidents in the workplace. This can cause workers to leave a business, have reduced productivity and/or a higher absence or illness rate.
  • Reputational damage can be significant when workers’ problems become public. This can cause a reduction in talent acquisition and criticism from shareholders and customers. A recent example is the 100-hour work weeks expected of summer interns in banks in the UK and USA, which led to claims of exploitation.
  • Financial risks: Operational risks can transform into financial risks if they lead to interruptions in internal processes or shortages of supplies, which in turn can disrupt production.

Impacts on Human Rights

Working time violations have the potential to impact a range of human rights,[1] including but not limited to:

  • The right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work (ICESCR, Article 7; UDHR, Article 23): Employees have a right to just and favourable working conditions, including fair wages, equal remuneration for equivalent work, healthy and safe working conditions, the right to rest, leisure, holidays and a reasonable limitation of working hours as part of the conditions of work.
  • The right to health (ICESCR, Article 7 and 12; UDHR, Article 25; multiple ILO conventions): Employees working long hours, especially over long periods of time, often face long-term risks to their health and safety.
  • The right to a family life (ICESCR, Article 10): Working excessive hours can negatively impact a worker’s family life, both in having the time outside of work to meet a partner and create a family, as well as to enjoy a family life when one has a family.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The following SDG targets relate to working time:

  • Goal 5 (“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”), Target 5.4: Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate. Limits on working time provide more time for both women and men to contribute more equally to unpaid care and domestic work.
  • Goal 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”), Target 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment

Key Resources

The following tools and resources provide further information on how businesses can address working time violations in their operations and supply chains:

  • ILO, Working Time in the Twenty-First Century: A report on recent trends and developments relating to working time around the world.
  • ILO, Guide to Developing Balanced Working Time Arrangements: A practical guide or ‘how-to’ manual on working time arrangements — also known as “work schedules”.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Working Hours: A step-by-step guide for business to improve working hours in supply chains.
  1. By introducing the due diligence-based corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) shift the focus from impacts on businesses to impacts on human rights. Further information on the UNGPs is included in section ‘Due Diligence Considerations’.