The shorter workweek and worker wellbeing: Evidence from Portugal and France

Anthony Lepinteur (PSE)

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Policies for reducing working hours, generally associated with the fight against unemployment, can also have effects on the well-being of workers. But are these positive or negative? There are several hypotheses. Introducing shorter working weeks, on salaries that remain the same, and increasing the time available for leisure might seem an obvious way to improve workers’ well-being. However, reducing working hours also creates major reorganisation of production processes, whose effects on well-being can turn out to be negative. Hence, it is difficult to come to a clear conclusion about the net expected effects of a reduction of working hours on workers’ well-being.

Anthony Lepinteur has studied this question, through the cases of France and Portugal, countries in which policies reducing working hours were introduced in 2000 and 1996 respectively. On the basis of data from the Panel Communautaire des Ménages (Community Household Panel) (1), the graph above maps the responses from France in the case of the 35-hour week. In the private sector, this reform was first applied, in 2000, to firms of more than 20 employees, and then to the smallest firms in 2002. This staggered introduction means that we can compare the actual change in levels of work satisfaction with work (the solid blue line) and leisure (solid red line) in the large firms affected by the 35-hour policy, with their natural change in the absence of the 35-hour rule (red and blue dotted lines), calculated using the small firms that were not affected by the policy between 2000 and 2001, and assuming that the change in the indexes of satisfaction of workers would have been the same in the large and small firms.

The conclusion is clear: the 35-hour week generated improvements in workers’ cognitive well-being (2), symbolised in the gap between the solid-colour lines and the dotted lines. The reduction of working hours in France created an increase of 0.1 point in satisfaction with work, on a scale of 1 to 6. By way of illustration, this rise is the equivalent of the effect produced by a promotion (3). The conclusions from the French case are confirmed by observation of similar increases in well-being in Portugal following the 1996 policy to reduce working hours. But Anthony Lepinteur stresses that these gains did not affect all workers equally. For example, increases in satisfaction with work in the industrial sector are more pronounced. Men benefitted more than women. Can we explain these differences by greater reductions in working time, or by more favourable changes in salaries? Analysis of the data tends to invalidate these hypotheses and new sources of heterogeneity must be researched. Thus, if the total of workers affected by the 35-hour policy reports being on average more satisfied with the number of working hours, only men and workers in the industrial sector declare that they are more satisfied by their working conditions following the introduction of the 35-hour week. If we wish to produce substantial increases in well-being at work, then a reduction in working hours is not sufficient. It is also crucial to ensure that the changes in working conditions that accompany it are not unfavourable to workers.

(2) Cognitive well-being, where we ask people to think about a dimension of their life and to give it a mark, is different from emotional well-being, in which we ask people to report on their feelings of stress, anxiety, or joy during the previous day, for example
(3) Clark, Andrew and Conchita D’Ambrosio (2015) “Good, Better, Best. The Social Context of Labor-Market Success”