The more work life balance we have, the more we want.

That's the finding of a global study into employment conditions, which found that workers in countries with shorter working hours were more likely to complain of poor work-life balance than those putting in the hard yards.

Researchers explored the impact of legislated maximum working hours, now in place in most western industrialised countries, on work-family conflict, examining data for employees in 32 nations.

"We expected workers in countries with shorter work weeks to report less conflict between the demands of their work and family, given this is one of the main objectives of shortening the work week," said University of Melbourne senior lecturer Leah Ruppanner, who co-authored the study along with David Maume from the University of Cincinnati.


"Yet, this is not what we found. Instead, we found the employees in countries with shorter working hours reported more work-family conflict."

Dr Ruppanner said that even when variables like the length of maternity leave, gender empowerment, or gender differences in employment status were taken into account, "we found our results were robust, meaning these other dimensions of countries were not driving this effect".

Heightened expectations

The results appear to call into question the policy idea that if you give workers - especially working parents - a shorter work week, that should give them additional discretionary time to manage competing work and family demands. But there is a simple explanation, Dr Ruppanner said.

"We believe this counterintuitive result is a product of the higher level of expectation set in countries with shorter work weeks," she said.

"The logic is very simple: give people more of something and it increases their expectations, which creates greater dissatisfaction when experiences do not meet their standards."

Of the workers involved in the study, those who lived in countries with shorter work hours had greater expectations for work-family balance and as a result were more likely to report conflict when it emerged, Dr Ruppanner said.

"This does not mean workers in countries with shorter work weeks experience more work-to-family conflict per se, but rather they are primed to be more sensitive to conflict when it emerges," she said.

"In fact, citizens need to view work-family conflict as a problem in order to legislate shorter work weeks. After this legislation, the legacy remains and is manifested through greater reported work-to-family conflict."


Shifting priorities

Data from 1989 to 2005 showed the proportion of citizens who viewed work time as a problem increased even though work hours were shortened.

Citizens of The Netherlands have some of the shortest weekly work hours in the world. In 1989, only 25 per cent of Dutch respondents said they preferred less time at work.

By 2005, the number was close to 40 per cent, even though the legislated weekly work time decreased by three hours and workers spent 11 fewer hours working than required by legislation.

Even though work hours have been shortened, people increasingly view work time as a problem.

"We found a similar pattern in Canada, Norway, Denmark, and New Zealand," Dr Ruppanner said. "In other words, even though work hours have been shortened, people increasingly view work time as a problem."

With more women spending their lifetime in the labour market, she said, flexible work arrangements - including shorter work weeks - would be essential.

"The growing desire for more work-life balance may shift cultural priorities away from work towards more time for family and leisure," Dr Ruppanner said.

"As men are increasingly called on to care for children, spouses and ageing family members, having a cultural emphasis less focused on work time should ease tensions around men and women's new family roles.

"These expectations may equalise family relations and allow men and women to more fully engage in family and work life. And these are expectations we can all support."