Long Working Hours

The Global Context of Long Working Hours

The concern about working hours in Western society can be traced back to the 18th century, at the wake of the Industrial Revolution (Cross, 1990).

Following innovations in automation, workers needed to keep up with the timing of machine operation, hence the scheduling of working hours became extremely important. However, workers’ wages were low and they needed to work long hours in order to maintain a subsistence existence (Cross, 1990).

The definition of overtime work changes with the context and situation, and there is no clear uniform regulation internationally.

In legal terms, overtime work refers to work performed beyond the legal “normal working hours” per week or per day (OECD, 1998), which then gives rise to the problems of paid and unpaid overtime work.

Another legal interpretation of overtime work refers to work beyond the “maximum working hours” per week or per day, or working hours agreed in collective bargaining.

In this case, overtime work refers to work that violates the legislative restrictions imposed on “maximum working hours” (McCann, 2005).

Since each country has its own restrictions in terms of “normal working hours” and “maximum working hours,” it is difficult to clearly demarcate the boundaries of overtime work. Nonetheless, the majority of developed countries have set the limit of “normal working hours per week” at 40 hours, and that of “maximum working hours per week” at 48 hours.

The definition of overtime work in academic research has also varied across countries and academic disciplines.

In contrast to the customary phrase overtime work used in legal terms, the phrase long working hours often appears in research, which has a similar meaning to overtime work.

For example, in Korean study, 40–47 working hours per week were categorized as “intermediate working hours,” 49–59 hours per week as “long working hours,” and over 60 hours per week as “very long working hours” (Park, Yi, & Kim, 2010). Whereas a Spanish study defined “long working hours” as over 60 hours per week for men, and over 50 hours per week for women (Pimenta et al., 2009).

In addition, studies have adopted hours per day as the unit, and defined “long working hours” as working more than 12 hours per day (Dembe, Erickson, Delbos, & Banks, 2005) or more than 10 hours per day (Nakanishi, Nakamura, Ichikawa, Suzuki, & Tatara, 1999); while another study asked employees a single question on whether they engaged in overtime work, soliciting workers’ subjective judgment, without providing any objective references (Fredriksson et al., 2009).

Adhering to the Taiwanese Labor Standards Act Opens in new window, researchers define long working hours as working over 49 hours per week, and very long working hours as over 60 hours, which provide objective indicators for our understanding of the current state of working time commitment in Taiwan.

However, it is worthwhile to take into account employees’ subjective perceptions of workload. As we'll see, the concept of working hours is not in a static state, but is in a constant flux reflecting the continuous interactions between employees and their environment.

Various considerations, including those by employees, supervisors, employers, and government policy-makers all conspire to make the decision on working time as much a personal choice as a socially sanctioned act.

Epidemiological Findings

With the commencement of the trade union movement, working hours became an important issue in employee-employer relations, while academics began to put forward evidence and arguments for the health hazards of excessively long working hours.

Consequently, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Opens in new window announced the Hours of Work Convention in 1919, which was the first specification of working hours, followed by the Weekly Rest Convention in 1921; the UN General Assembly Opens in new window passed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1966.

All of these policy interventions underlined the belief that reasonable legislative restrictions should be imposed on working hours in order to safeguard employee health and work-life balance.

Subsequently, a series of policies and acts to shorten working hours were formulated in various developed countries. With the help of governmental intervention and protection, working hours gradually declined in the West. Nevertheless, in the mid to late 1970s, the concept of flexible working arrangements was proposed as a necessary stimulus for economic competition (WHO, 2006), an working hours once again faced new challenges.

Flexible working arrangements have enabled more flexible working hours but also increased the risk of employees being exposed to excessively short or long working hours. Furthermore, the formulation of national legislation and supervision of working hours became more difficult.

For example, a survey by the ILO discovered that in 2000, the proportion of employees working long hours (≥ 50 hours per week) was higher than that in 1987 in countries such as Italy, Finland, Britain, Australia, America, New Zealand, and Japan (Messenger, 2004).

Thus, although research on working hours is not new, it does need to expand its scope to respond to emerging challenges in the global economic era.

During the 1970s in Japan, there was an outbreak in cases of sudden deaths of employees due to overwork. The phrase karoshi (or “death from overwork”) began to be widely used in 1982, following the publication of the book entitled Karoshi by three physicians (Kanai, 2006).

Public awareness was raised in Japanese society and relevant studies were published, which resulted in the accumulation of a large quantity of epidemiological evidence on the relationship between working hours and health.

In recent years, numerous news reports on karoshi and overtime work have emerged. In 2010, the media reported at great length about the suspected karoshi of a 29-year-old engineer in the high-tech industry due to overtime work.

This incident once again sparked an extensive public debate on overwork and overtime work. According to statistics from the Dow Jones (2011) news archive, a total of 166 news reports pertaining to overtime work were filed between January 2011 and April 2011, which is many times higher than the isolated cases reported in the past.

In the 2010 World Competitiveness Yearbook released by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland, Taiwan was ranked 14 (out of 59) countries in the average working hours, which mount to 2,074 hours per year.

The 2009 human resources survey by the Executive Yuan Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) in Taiwan indicated that 17.6% of employed persons worked more than 50 hours per week.

Much of the data to date rely on average working hours to illustrate the trends of change in working hours over the years. While average working hours reflecting an overall picture of employees’ commitment of working time in Taiwan, the causes and consequences of such long working hours in Asia still need to be explained.

As Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) Opens in new window postulates, behavioral manifestations depend on the continuous and mutual influences among the external environment, personal cognition, and past behaviors (Bandura, 1993). Therefore, the same behavior (e.g., long working hours) will have different meanings in different locations, different cultural contexts, and for different people.

Why People Choose to Work Long Hours

The reasons why people work for long hours encompass an often complex interaction between workplace constraints, institutional regulations, incentives, working conditions, cultural values, macroeconomic climate, and personal motivations. However, there is no comprehensive theory to encompass both personal and environmental factors implicated in this perplexing phenomenon (Figart, Golden, 1998).

Porter (2004) distinguished two motivations for working long hours, pointing out that a person may work long hours because of their joy in the work. This is the behavior of a constructive, highly committed person.

However, one may also be compelled to work long hours, using it as a defensive strategy to avoid repercussions such as tarnished image or risk of being laid off in organizational downsizing. Thus, the driving forces behind long working hours can at least be dichotomized into constructive and compulsive ones.

In view of the growing literature on long working hours, we believe that the field may benefit from theory-building efforts as well as theory-testing research.

We thus anchor the basic model in the SCT perspective, as we believe that SCT as an overarching theory with a social-psychological thrust may help to explain the differential reactivity in stress Opens in new window and adaptation in general, and long working hours and presenteeism in particular. Presenteeism Opens in new window refers to the act of showing up for work when one is ill (Johns, 2012), or more precisely defined and measured as sickness presenteeism (Lu, Peng, Lin, & Cooper, 2014).

Presenteeism may thus be regarded as an extreme case of long working hours. Although what proportion of long working hours is attributable to presenteeism is yet unknown, presenteeism has undoubtedly exacerbated the problem of overwork.

In a nutshell, SCT describes the triadic reciprocal determinism among the environment (e.g., working conditions), the individual (e.g., self-efficacy Opens in new window), and behavior (e.g., long working hours, presenteeism Opens in new window).

SCT advocates that individuals tend to undertake behaviors that they believe will result in a “better” outcome. Defined as the belief in one’s competence to cope with a broad range of stressful or challenging demands, general self-efficacy thus is a very important factor in shaping the meaning that people ascribe to situations (Bandura, 1997).

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    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. The Routledge Companion to Wellbeing at Work By Cary L. Cooper, Michael P. Leiter.