Is it possible to work less and spend more time with the family?

January 21, 2015


Less than 10% of Latin American countries have an established 40-hour work week. Employers and companies are now trying to harmonize work life with personal life.

Almost two weeks ago, Facundo, an attorney living in Buenos Aires, decided to work fewer hours. Previously, he got up at dawn, before his three-month-old daughter was awake. After a long work day, which often lasted more than 12 hours, he returned home to find his young daughter asleep again.

 “I realized that work can give you a lot of opportunities, but you have just one chance to raise a child,” he said.

How often have you thought about changing your routine in an effort to strike a balance between your professional and personal life? If you do so almost daily, perhaps it is time to make the change: have more quality time for family, hobbies and others.

Although new technologies have simplified some tasks and saved time at work, organizations have grown accustomed to demanding responses 24/7, which has ended up “enslaving” more than one employee. Answering e-mails outside of work hours, receiving work messages on social media or working on a presentation on days off are part of the weekly menu.

Latin America is no exception. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 67% of developed countries, including those of the European Union, have established a maximum 40-hour work week whereas just 9% of Latin American countries have done so.

In addition,  some private consultants affirm that Latin Americans can spend up to four hours per day traveling to and from work. Trying to reconcile work life with personal life has become a daunting task. Above all, the infamous practice of “warming the chair” is as dangerous as an excessive workload. “Leaving on time is often frowned upon, which creates a culture of overtime,” says María, a 31-year-old engineer who works for an oil firm in the Argentine capital.

“Striking a balance between personal life and work does not mean the same thing for all workers or all jobs,” says Jamele Rigolini, World Bank economist who specializes in human development and poverty. 

But why do we feel so overwhelmed? Why are we unable to balance work with our personal life?

To understand, we need to go back in time a bit. “When women joined the labor force, they began to have this double agenda between work and family. Men tended to disconnect more,” says researcher Patricia Debeljuh, director of the IAE Business School’s Center for Work and Family Reconciliation.

According to the World Bank report Gender at Work, in Latin America and the Caribbean, women’s participation in the labor market has increased 35% since 1990. The study found that in 2010, levels of extreme poverty would have been 30% higher were it not for the extra income women earned from working.

 “Nevertheless, currently, both men and women of Y Generation – many of whom were born in the 1980s – want to change the rules. They saw the high price their parents paid because they could not balance work with their personal life,” says Debeljuh.

" When companies hire a technician, analyst or manager, they have to understand that they are hiring a person who has a family "

Patricia Debeljuh

director of the IAE Business School’s Center for Work and Family Reconciliation

If you’re with your family, you’re with your family

 “I’m often irritable at home because my work is exhausting.” “My family complains that I don’t pay enough attention to them because I’m always working.” “I make sure that my partner/children/family does not feel neglected, even when I have a lot of work.”

These are some of the responses to a survey of the Hacé el click hoy campaign launched by the Argentine Advertising Council. The campaign seeks to raise awareness on striking a balance between work and personal life and on the importance of family ties.

“It’s paradoxical because you work for the well-being of your loved ones, but they see our worst side because we are tired from working,” says Debeljuh, who provided advice for the campaign.

 “Balancing work and personal life is as much an ethical question as it is a question of productivity,” says Rigolini. “Certain conditions permit adapting to workers’ needs and improving their performance and commitment.”

Thus, together with the personal changes workers may make, many companies are deciding to make work days more flexible and to provide conditions that favor balancing office hours with family life.

The role of companies

“I work twice a week from home, which means savings in time and money (I don’t spend money on eating lunch out, I don’t pay transportation costs and the company reimburses my internet expenses) and I avoid the physical fatigue of traveling to the office,” says Victoria, who applauds the flexibility policies of her company, a multinational consulting agency with offices throughout Latin America.

Debeljuh proposes introducing the concept of “family corporate responsibility,” where companies recognize employees’ families as interest groups. “When companies hire a technician, analyst or manager, they have to understand that they are hiring a person who has a family,” she says.

“Companies are now taking a more comprehensive view of individuals,” says Virginia Meneghello, one of director in the campaign and Organizational Culture Manager of Telecom, a telecommunications company.

For example, “policies should create a place for men’s new roles, such as rethinking the length of paternity leave.” However, for Meneghello, “the work-personal life balance is not only associated with time, but also with other initiatives, for example, with facilitating economic services for employees.”

Although many Latin American companies have begun to recognize the advantages of having motivated workers, for experts like Debeljuh, “the state should provide support through legislation because many employers are not sensitive to their employees’ reality.”

According to Rigolini, “the state plays a key role in ensuring and promoting workers’ rights.” He stresses the need for campaigns to raise awareness on workers’ rights and why they are important. “Employers should not view things like 12-hour work days as normal,” he says.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, several companies have successfully proved their theories about reducing work hours. Since 2008, the Iberdrola Company has implemented a six-hour and 15-minute work day, with a 45-minute window for arrival and departure times. According to company management, among other benefits, the firm has increased productivity and gained more than 500,000 work hours annually by reducing absenteeism by 20% and work accidents by 15%.