Leading European nations take on flexible working patterns

Since we kicked off our recent focus on the rise of flexible working there has been a considerable amount of press coverage dedicated to the impact our jobs have on both physical and mental health...

You are reading an article from the rise of flexible working series, to read more about this you can visit the series homepage.

It’s certainly a topic that’s bang on trend. In the last few weeks we’ve seen governments, private companies and trade unions from across Europe go back and forth on the matter, debating the changes that need to be made in order to improve the lives of workers.

So what of these recent developments and how will they directly impact our day-to-day lives? Take a look at some of the key talking points as Europe takes on the flexible working culture.

France v out-of-hours emails

Those of us who find ourselves with a company phone on our persons at all times of the day and night will be familiar with the late night request from our boss and the, somehow addictive, act of firing out emails of an evening while it feels like the rest of the world is off the clock. Many employees stuck in the out-of-hours email spiral will have probably experienced fatigue and stress, on some level, as a result of this inability to switch off.

Officials in France have this month decided to take action, with new rules being put into place which will see those in the digital and consultancy sectors given greater protection. A deal signed between employers federations and unions will enable workers to switch off their phones, with firms no longer able to pressure staff to check emails before 9am and after 6pm. Furthermore all ‘digital working time’ will now need to be measured, France currently has a 35 hour working week.

Sweden v shorter working days

“Shorter working hours create a more committed and stable workforce,” explains Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation. "There are indications you can make savings by reducing working hours." This sentiment has been backed up by favourable results in a Utah based experiment, where public sector workers were given three day weekends.

This study is now being built upon by the Swedish City of Gothenburg, with public sector workers having their working hours reduced whilst still being kept on the same pay in an effort to create a healthier and happier workforce. Employees will now work six hour days in the hope that, according to Deputy Mayor Mats Pilhem, "staff members would take fewer sick days and feel better mentally and physically after working shorter days."

Britain v super-flexible working patterns

While flexible working on a voluntary basis has been proven to reduce employee stress – a recent study found that almost seven in ten workers stated that the option for a flexible working pattern was critical in relieving work-based stress. Those who are being forced to work under ‘super-flexible working conditions’ are having their mental health damaged, according to a review carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The research, conducted for the government department by Cambridge University, has shed a light on the real impact of zero-hours contracts, extreme part-time contracts and frequent labour matching (where managers arrange and rearrange shifts to meet demand at short notice) on those working under the practices.

"Workplace flexibility is thought of as helping employees, but it has become completely subverted across much of the service sector to suit the employer – and huge numbers of workers are suffering as a consequence," commented Brendan Burchill from Cambridge University’s department of sociology. "So-called 'flexi-contracts', whether that's zero, eight or 10 hours – none of which can provide a living – allow low-level management unaccountable power to dictate workers' hours and consequent income to a damaging extent that is open to incompetence and abuse." 

Germany v the World Cup

For every instance of a well-thought out case against restrictive working conditions, you can usually find an example of someone taking the idea of employee freedom too far. And so to Germany, where union boss Robert Feiger has decided: "It would a noble move by employers if they showed a bit of flexibility during the World Cup. For Germany games after 10pm, work should start a little bit later if possible,” suggested the IGBAU construction union chief. "Employers and work councils should talk about rearranging shifts so that their staff can watch World Cup games."

While this move may cause some significant disruption for workers based in Germany or Spain, it is thought that any such proposal would have minimal impact on employees based in England.

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