Business

The long and short of working hours: Preparing for the August change

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

Sometimes, even though your mind may be elsewhere, physically being present at office and sitting in a chair for eight hours, just to ensure your employer doesn’t cut your pay or think you’re slacking off, does the trick. Often, work is merely measured by the number of hours spent in the office, while, in fact, workers should be ranked based on productivity.  

The West is increasingly moving away from rigid work hours, habituating their employees to flexible work schedules. They believe setting specific time parameters and making it mandatory to be at work for hours alone does not indicate productivity. They believe it is the employee who should decide how long they need to work and how involved they are. At the same time, however, there are employees who prefer traditional work hours as they are accustomed to that lifestyle. 

We, in Sri Lanka, a developing nation, are more conditioned to the 9 a.m.-5 p.m. work schedule, which is certainly more popular amongst public sector employees. Nevertheless, certain private sector businesses are in the process of adopting tactile ways of working, making showing up to work not mandatory, and doing away with traditional working hours, in a bid to increase employee productivity. 

 

Sri Lanka changes its working hours

At a time traditional work hours are being discouraged in developed countries and also by a few local private sector companies, Transport Services Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera recently introduced changes to Sri Lanka’s private and public sector work hours. 

Accordingly, state sector office hours are from 9 a.m. until 4.45 p.m. and the private sector work hours are from 9.45 a.m. until 6.45 p.m. Based on these new changes, state sector employees work seven hours and 45 minutes a day, while private sector employees work nine hours a day. The changes are expected to come into effect from August onwards, upon the Cabinet of Ministers’ approval. 

Office hours have been revised with the objective of aiding in the maintenance of physical distance so as to prevent the spread of Covid-19, avoiding traffic congestion, and improving efficiency and productivity of the public and private services.

This week, The Sunday Morning Business takes a look at whether these objectives are achievable via these changes to work times, the associated positive and negative aspects, and also draws comparisons between a couple of countries that stick to rigid work hours, and Sri Lanka. 

 

Opinions on the change

National Chamber of Commerce Chairman Ramal Jasinghe   

Ramal Jasinghe, speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, stated that this new change in work hours do not seem unrealistic, however, it may take some time for both sectors to adapt to the new routine. 

“It is going to take some time for the sectors to adapt to this practice. It is certainly going to take more time for the public sector to adapt as they are programmed to work from nine to five. The private sector anyway does not leave the office until their work is done, so even though their hours are extended, I do not think it will be a big issue,” Jasinghe noted. 

He added that as long as the new time schedule does not affect employees’ productivity, companies will be fine with implementing the new work hours. However, he shared that it is a bit unfair of them to have long work hours only for the private sector. He also questioned the effect on work-life balance and women’s safety.

“People’s lifestyles differ from district to district. Employees in several districts finish off work before dusk and get home. Women’s safety is a major concern. The Government needs to have the relevant infrastructure in place to ensure they are protected. In the meantime, work-life balance should also be maintained,” he added.

Furthermore, Jasinghe said that the private sector should be given leeway to decide on their work schedule, where, for instance, they follow the work schedule recommended by the Government for two days a week while following their usual work schedules during the rest of the week, balanced by the Work From Home (WFH) concept.

 

Ceylon National Chamber of Industries Immediate Past Chairman Raja Hewabowala

Raja Hewabowala told us that the new change is too much for the private sector to handle as it is used to traditional yet rigid work hours for decades now. His main concern was security issues. 

“This is not practical. Lots of women come to work in urban areas from rural areas. They come in the morning and go back to their hometown in the evening, after work. It will be dark even by the time they come out from the office. Most of them take trains in the evening. After getting off at the railway station, some of them might have to walk home, which is not really safe as it would be quite late,” Hewabowala stated. 

Speaking about the possible impacts on employees’ productivity, Hewabowala is of the view that the new work hours are not likely to cause any significant changes to the existing productivity levels of employees as the hours do not exceed nine per day.  

He added that there would only be issues if an employee has to work 10 or 12 hours a day as it would be tiring for the employee and there will be no productivity in the late hours.

 

Is this fair on employees?

Luminary Learning Solutions, a professional training and coaching institute, Chief Evangelist Anton Thayalan, speaking to us, noted that in time, this new change will only be an inconvenience for employees. 

Thayalan added that there are employees who take three or four buses to come to work. Following the implementation of these new working hours, by the time they leave, the last bus from that particular area might have left already and this will be inconvenient for employees.

He added that if an employee is also a parent, this would cause them further stress. 

“If you’re a parent and you have to drop your child at school around 7.30 a.m. but your work, according to this time change, requires you to come to office two hours after dropping your child/children, what are you going to do in between?

“You will eventually go to the office and start working even though you are supposed to start work two hours later. But you cannot leave two hours early because the employer wants you to leave at the time that has been decided by the Government. Otherwise, you’ll be subjected to a pay cut because you are leaving early. You will be sort of forced to stay those two hours, which will affect your mental health and you will go home stressed,” Thayalan explained. 

To resolve this issue, Thayalan suggested that the parents from both sectors should come up with a customised plan. Accordingly, a parent from the private sector should be able to go to work half an hour or an hour after dropping off their child at school while those in the public sector should be given the freedom to go to work around the time they drop their child off, or half an hour earlier. 

He added that even though employees will get used to this time schedule, it does not take away from the fact that there will be additional stress on parents with children, especially those who leave their children at daycare centres and can only pick their child up late in the evening; this would affect the child’s mental health too as he/she spends much time at daycare and less time with their parents. 

On a further note, Thayalan noted that the public sector can start early and finish early, similar to several other countries. According to him, this makes sense and is more practical. Moreover, he noted that the economy of a country should start early; otherwise, he questioned how the sectors are going to keep up with markets opening and trading.

 

Can public transport cater to these work hours?

Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) Chairman Kingsley Ranawaka told The Sunday Morning Business that they are willing to extend their usual operating hours and provide transport to employees after the implementation of the new working hours. 

“Generally, private transport does not operate late hours. It is anyway public transport that operates until  7 or 8 p.m., and now we are ready to operate even beyond this,” Ranawaka added. 

Furthermore, he added that they will co-ordinate with the Railway Department and arrange a time schedule and operate accordingly.

 

Countries with unusual working hours: An analysis

Italy, Japan, Spain, and China are four countries with unusual working hours. While they might benefit from prolonged working hours, they also face issues either in terms of employees’ health and/or productivity.

 

Japan’s death by overwork

Japan has one of the longest work hour schedules in the world. The average work day in Japan starts at 8.30 a.m. and ends at about 7 p.m., typically including a one-hour lunch break. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Government in 2016, about 25% of the companies in Japan expect their employees to work 80 hours a week, which is more than double that of several European countries.  Shockingly, often extra hours are unpaid.

According to the survey, only 52.4% of paid leave was utilised in 2018 as most employees feel guilty to take paid leave. This explains the pressure on Japanese companies to eradicate the risk of “death by overwork” or “Karoshi” in Japanese – termed “occupational sudden mortality”. The major medical causes of Karoshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet. This claimed 197 lives in Japan in 2017.

The Japanese Government considered several initiatives to curb the number of hours spent at the office, including making it mandatory to take at least five vacation days per year and requiring a “rest” period between the end of one day and the start of another. Last year, the Government launched an initiative called “Premium Fridays”, which encourages companies to allow their employees to leave at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. 

Even though Japanese employees work too long, their productivity has been lower. Japan was ranked 20th among the 36 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in labour productivity in 2017, keeping the same rank as the previous year, but marking the worst standing among the Group of Seven major economies. Several analysts are of the view that if working hours are reduced, productivity might see a boost.

 

Italy’s long hours and long holidays

Italians are another set of people who work long hours. Italian workers work from about 8 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. before taking their break; they then resume at 1:30 p.m. and work until 7 p.m. In the public sector, typical work hours are from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. Workers in Italy are guaranteed a minimum of four weeks of paid leave for vacation and holidays. 

Unlike Japan, Italy is a country that’s known for having long holidays and for making family, rather than work, a priority. Most Italian employees will also get up to 104 hours of work time reduction, annually. This is intended for things like going to the bank or taking a child to the doctor. 

The quality of life in Italy is reportedly higher than that of most European countries. According to a recent OECD study, this might be due to Italy’s excellent work-life balance. With an index of 9.4 out of 10, Italy ranks among the top countries in the world for work-life balance. The index was compiled taking into account several parameters, from the percentage of employees working very long hours to the average time dedicated to hobbies, self-care, personal grooming, sports, family life, food, sleep, and so on. 

Italy was one of the European leaders in hourly labour productivity until the mid-1990s. This advantage has gradually narrowed. Today, Italy’s productivity is 20% below that of France and Germany. Nevertheless, according to studies, this is due to the lag in labour force education and training, particularly for the young, which restricts the supply of skilled jobs. 

 

China’s ‘996’ concept

Chinese workers begin the day at 8 a.m. and go on till noon; after their two-hour break, they work until 6 p.m. Longer hours than this are very common in China’s tech industry, so much so that the schedule has been referred to as “9-9-6” – shorthand for a 72-hour work week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. 

The 996 schedule is now being practiced by many non-tech companies also. Companies employ a range of measures, such as reimbursing taxi fares for employees who remain working at the office late into the night, to encourage overtime work. 

On a positive note, this work schedule in the China tech industry makes Silicon Valley pale in comparison as they are accustomed to a 9-5-5 work schedule. According to Forbes, the tech economy is growing too fast, the competition is too brutal, and the opportunities are too vast in China to take a laidback approach. Jack Ma of Alibaba is a proponent of the 996 work hours. 

Critics argue that the 996 working hour system is a flagrant violation of Chinese law. In March 2019, an “anti-996” protest was launched. As the China Biz Connect website noted, John Artman at Technode, a China tech news agency, stated: “As wages rise, Chinese productivity is lagging behind global averages. 996 schedules are an ad hoc solution for companies that don’t know how to manage workers effectively.” 

Nevertheless, some analysts are of the view that China’s amazing growth in the last 50 years comes with a cost, which is the overtime the Chinese workers had to put in to achieve that growth.

 

Spain’s siestas and lower productivity

A typical Spanish working day tends to be from around 8.30 a.m. or 9 a.m. to around 1.30 p.m. with a siesta in between, and then from 4.30 p.m. or 5 p.m. to around 8 p.m. Siestas which are afternoon rests or naps are a tradition in Spain.  

Research states siestas are now being phased out in an attempt to end the work day at 6 p.m., thus bringing Spain in line with the rest of Europe. This is mainly due to lower productivity levels of employees during the nearly 11-hour stretch of work. 

Three years ago, a Spanish parliamentary commission recommended the introduction of a more regular, nine-to-five day. Spain’s Employment Minister at the time Fátima Báñez said turning back the clock and introducing a nine-to-five day would yield swift and obvious benefits. “If we turn the clocks back, it’ll get darker earlier and so people will want to go home earlier. It would also be good for the body and people would work better and more productively.” 

Since neither employees nor employers were willing to follow the suggested change because they are too used to siestas and the old work hours, on 12 May last year, a new law came into force in Spain requiring companies to keep a daily record of the working hours of their employees. The purpose of this new labour law is to make clear the amount of overtime work. In the process, it will also be a record of the interruptions in employees’ workdays, such as lunchtime and other breaks that are not considered effective working time.

 

Pros and cons of a long working day

Pros 

  • Long work hours might come with a satisfactory salary. It can be a boost to pay off bills and expenses
  • In terms of companies, long work hours accompanied by better productivity levels can help the company achieve better performance
  • In some jobs, just showing up on time and doing the work correctly is enough to set an employee apart from their coworkers. When the atmosphere is more competitive, though, putting in extra hours could be a good way to impress upper management

 

Cons 

  • Putting in extra hours in the form of overtime can make the employee miss out on social events, family time, or other functions that are important in their life and relationships outside of work
  • Working too many hours may cause employees to tire of their jobs too quickly, making work seem more arduous and the employee less productive
  • Employees will not be able to do a part-time job and have to rely entirely on their main job as a source of income
  • Concerns on mental health are inevitable. A survey published in The Independent of British workers revealed that over 40% of respondents felt more stressed because of these additional work commitments. Increased stress can lead to insomnia, overeating, drinking too much alcohol, depression, and other mental health concerns
  • For companies, even though their employees are less productive due to long hours, they still have to pay them the fixed salary
  • In a country like Sri Lanka, women’s safety is a big concern when working after dusk, especially if they are to take public transport to get home

 

What can be done? 

Based on the comments we received, the private sector has to be given the freedom to decide how they are going to implement this new change while also adhering to the laws in Sri Lanka. Certain officials suggest partial implementation of the new work hours combined with working from home. 

Furthermore, in terms of women’s safety, the relevant infrastructure in terms of public transport has to be developed. In the aforementioned countries, despite their productivity levels and unusual work hours, they have better and more comfortable public transport, thereby relieving employees of stress related to finding a way home, which would have been in addition to work stress.