Better Life Lab

What Europe Gets Right—and What It Gets Wrong—About Flexible Work

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by

When it comes to flexibility and work-life balance, the U.S. lags far behind many of its counterparts around the world. U.S. workers work incredibly long hours; most can’t access paid family leave in life’s most trying circumstances; and some are expected to be on-call virtually all day, every day, or put in long hours in the office even when their job performance has nothing to do with their physical presence there.

I reached out to Heejung Chung, a professor of sociology and social policy at Kent University in the U.K. who studies flexible work in Europe, to better understand how different countries have made flexible work increasingly common. While many of these policies have increased worker uptake of flexible-work options, they also sometimes backfire, leading to overwork and penalties for the workers who take advantage of them. I asked Chung what the U.S. can learn from the European experiments with flexibility thus far, and what it will take to make flexible work policies work better for everyone.

Haley Swenson: How did you get interested in studying the effects of flexibility policies in different places?

Heejung Chung: When I was doing my Ph.D. I was working on a big project with the European Commission on work-time flexibility. And I came across a lot of literature in the business community and trade magazines about flexibility being this amazing arrangement, almost a kind of a panacea for everything. Like, “it’s great for employers and employees.”

And then I was looking at academics, who have the highest levels of autonomy over their work in terms of when and where we work, and I started thinking much more critically about flexibility and autonomy. Academics in the U.K. do not have set working hours—it’s the same in the U.S.—and what you have is academics working very long hours.

So, by no means do I feel like flexibility is bad. If I hadn’t had flexibility when I had my daughter, there’s no way I could have stayed in my job as a full-time professor. It would have been impossible to breastfeed and have to be in my office 9–5 and get all my work done.

Flexibility is good, but it really depends on how it is used. If you have a flexible schedule and work autonomy and no clear boundaries, you can just expand the amount of work being done, without getting overtime or weekend premiums.

Despite all this talk about flexible working and flexible schedules and teleworking being the solution to all our problems, the empirical evidence doesn’t really seem to support it. And that’s kind of where my starting point with this project was: Why doesn’t it actually lead to this perfect work-life balance we expected it to? And then, when does it actually work and for whom?

How have the countries you’ve studied in Europe encouraged more flexible work in different ways, and how is it working so far? What lessons can we learn from these different strategies?

Germany is a country that changed their family friendly policies more dramatically than any other country I know. About a decade ago, it was still quite conservative. Most mothers were expected to stay home after childbirth, especially for the first few years, while men kept their full-time jobs. Now, with the introduction of paternity leave and increase in a public child care provision for the early years, more women are in the labor market, but more importantly more fathers now take time off to take care of their children after childbirth.

In the U.K. you have the right to request flexible work. It was initially for parents with young or disabled children when it was introduced in 2003. This expanded to those with care responsibilities for adults, disabled or sick family members, and then in 2014 to all workers regardless of their care demands.

The problem [in the U.K.] is that it is a right to request, which means it is also a right to be rejected on various grounds. The grounds for rejections are many and in many cases employers do not really give workers a reason. In the past years, the employment tribunal fees have also increased quite a lot meaning that even if you feel that your request was rejected unfairly (and many people feel that is the case), you can’t really take it further due to the costs involved.

On the other hand, the Dutch right to flexible working is more protective of workers. In this case, the employer needs to provide a coherent case of why providing flexible working/or accepting the request would lead to serious problems for the business, making it much harder to dismiss the requests. Such protection is crucial to making flexible working work.

As a general rule, with the Dutch, when you say full-time, you’re talking about 36 hours a week. People really focus on being very productive in those 36 hours they’re given, but then when they go home there’s a huge emphasis on time with family—and when I say family I don’t mean just core family but your relatives, brothers and sisters, etc.—and a lot of emphasis on well-being. And if you look at the data, they’re some of the most productive people in industrialized countries.

So, what you describe about the Dutch sounds like a work hard, play hard mentality. When you’re at work, you’re working, and then when you leave, you don’t take it home with you. Is that better than the idea that we should be flexible so we spread our work throughout the whole day? Is there a trade-off? Is flexibility really helpful?

Well, the Dutch do also work flexible hours. The Dutch government really supports teleworking and working from home and flexible schedules. They’re one of the countries that have really legislatively pursued that. And the reason for that is the Netherlands is a really small country, and you could practically live anywhere and commute to any city to work. They have really good public transportation, but they don’t want everybody to go to work at 9 a.m. because they have huge congestion. So the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment first pursued flexible working policies to solve this.

Flexibility can also work well in a job where you have to work long hours. When you have a huge work load, it’s better to be flexible because you are able to manage it. In the U.K., when women are not able to be flexible and there’s a very long working hours culture, they drop out. They have to. And this happens in the U.S. as well.

In the context in which we’re living after the economic crisis of 2008, there’s an incredible amount of competition between workers across the world. There’s a lot of rhetoric about you being the person responsible for your career. Especially with the advancement of technology, there’s a sense that you should work all the time to make yourself competitive. In this context, flexibility, which can be really beneficial to workers, can also lead to negative outcomes.

I’ve seen some of your work on this problem, “the gift-exchange,” where the employee starts to feel they owe their employer something in exchange for flexibility and ends up working longer hours? As though flexibility were a gift to be paid back. What do we do about that?

The “gift-exchange” is the idea that even if flexibility is increasing, it is still perceived as something that’s a privilege to have. Workers realize that and thus want to reciprocate. Despite the prevalence of flexible working in a lot of areas and despite the fact that flexible workers are in many cases much more productive, there’s a huge level of stigmatization: that they create more work for others or aren’t working as hard as others.

One way of addressing that problem is making flexible working much more of a right than a gift. Legislatively you can have what the Dutch did where you have a right to request and employers can only reject it when they provide a very concrete case for why this cannot be accepted. They need to make a business case that if this person works from home one to two days a week this will have a severe consequence for our business. That’s different from the U.K. case where there’s a prevalent sense of flexibility stigma and there the employee needs to make the case of why they need to work flexibly. That’s when you feel employers are gifting you flexibility.

How do you find balance in your own work, with this pressure to work longer hours in exchange for flexibility?

I am privileged and I have a secure job and have tenure at a very young age, so I am able to take a step back consciously to look in the much longer term and prioritize other aspects of my life. I ask myself if I really need to get that next grant and write that next paper and be the best in my field. Maybe I should step aside and let a junior colleague have that chance. Maybe instead, I want to prioritize spending time with my daughter.

I’m actually going to cut my workday a bit short today and go swimming my daughter. And I think, is that slacking? No, it’s not. Because when I go swimming with my daughter in the afternoon, I’m going to be healthier and more productive in the long-term. In the end, the people who are going to be working 12 hours a day are going to be a much bigger burden to society as a whole, because of the lack of quality relationships with their children and friends and spouse, but also in terms of getting sick from working too much.

I think that’s what we need to think about. Why are we working like crazy? And how is it impacting the whole society? I know some people have a real concern with insecurity and need to work hard to keep their jobs, and I know that’s true in the U.S. with the lack of employment protections, but many of us are setting the bar higher and higher for each other. We’re just fueling the rat race. We have to step back and change our idea of what the ideal worker looks like.

On that note, I think we should wrap up so you can go swimming with your daughter.