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by Alex J Wood

‘I had to change hours. . . I felt really sick, it just hit me, it hit all of us.’ These are the words that Colin used to describe the painful reality of workplace temporal flexibility for many workers. And it is an experience which is becoming increasingly common.

In the US, economists Lonnie Golden found that 28% of workers report having schedules with variable start and end times. A similar situation exists in Europe where around 35% of workers report facing changes in their work schedule.

The growth of flexible scheduling has caused significant public debate in UK. In particular, the growth of zero hour contracts, a form of employment which does not guarantee any hours of work, figured prominently in the 2015 general election. Labour party leader Ed Miliband coined the term ‘zero-zero Britain’ to highlight the unfairness of a ‘recovery’ in which the ‘rich paid zero tax while the poor received zero hours contracts’.

In response to such criticism the UK government drew upon think tank research to argue that such flexible scheduling was actually a good for workers, enabling them to ‘flex their work… [and thus be] more satisfied with their work life balance.’

In a recently published ethnographic study, I sought to evaluate whether such flexible employment could truly be considered beneficial for work-life balance.

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Meetingby Steve Vincent

Common sense suggests professional self-employment is liberating, for women in particular. Women are more likely to choose to work reduced hours when self-employed because they bear the burden of domestic responsibilities. As a consequence, careers that promise flexibility can be attractive.

Arguably, self-employed professionals can take control of their working time by spacing contracts with clients. As their work is typically mobilised by technology, they can often choose when and where they work. As a result, they can escape the long-hours culture typical of professional work and pattern their working lives to suit their personal interests.

In short, if employment fails to deliver suitable working patters, self-employed professionals can go their own way.

My recent research questions this common sense view by exploring the practices of self-employed human resources (HR) consultants. The research indicates that self-employed consultants who chose to work fewer hours experienced some fairly intractable forms of disadvantage. Here’s why.

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work wheelAmong the many things that the American mythology holds to be special about the United States is a particularly strong work ethic. This, of course, is part of a larger narrative of rugged individualism. However dubious the idea of a uniquely American work ethic, it is certainly telling to examine how much Americans work compared with fellow workers in peer countries.

In terms of average annual hours worked per person, the US currently ranks 12th out of 34 OECD countries – that is, Americans work more per year than workers in 22 other OECD countries. The average Dutch worker clocks in 405 fewer hours per year than the average American worker! Yet, the Netherlands ranks ninth out of the 34 countries in GDP per capita, 15% above the OECD average and just five places behind the US. As economist Juliet Schor argued in a best-selling book over 20 years ago, Americans are overworked. Let us examine the most recent, comparative data in a bit more detail.

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