Shorter Working Hours May Be in Store For South Africa – What This Means

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South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour this week stated there should be research into the practicality and possibility of reducing the country’s working hours.

This comes shortly after the global 4-Day Week trial in which various South African companies participated.

At present, the limit of normal working hours allowed for South Africa is 45 hours, as per the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) that sets out national workers’ rights.

This is a result of past investigations into the feasibility of working hour reductions that had led to previously even higher working hours being cut down.

A desire for further reductions

The Department wants to look into making working hours shorter yet again and states that fresh research into the length of the work week is needed.

The BCEA aims to cut the work week in South Africa down to 40 hours. Note that this reduction would not mean a lower salary for the average 9-to-5 workers.

This possible reduction seems to be in line with the four-day workweek concept, in the sense that it would mean employees work for less time each week but are paid the same amount and produce the same amount of output in this shorter time.

South Africans work more than most of the world

According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), most employees in South Africa have a work week that is 40 to 48 hours long, but a large 21% of South Africans have workweeks that are 49 hours or more.

An extensive study by Oxford University found that South Africa’s working hours are some of the longest of any country on Earth.

Between 1950 and 2017, the university kept tabs on more than 50 countries’ working hours and calculated the average work week per worker in each country each year.

The International Labour Organisation’s data on the working hours of South Africans matches closely with the results of Oxford’s research.

Why would a country reduce its working hours?

Why exactly is the Department of Employment and Labour considering shortening the South African work week?

The department says there is insufficient research in the context of South Africa, so we can’t speak precisely for the country.

However, there are various reasons countries decide to reduce their working hours or move to four-day work weeks.

There are a few key benefits of reduced working hours that we see cited again and again. These are:

1.     An increase in productivity

Various research studies have been carried out over the years that have found a link between shorter working hours and a boost in productivity. And high productivity is always good for businesses.

While findings from studies must always be taken with a pinch of salt rather than taken as the absolute truth, these studies do appear to give evidence that a shorter workday can increase productivity.

A 2018 study, for instance, found that employees in the UK worked longer hours on average but were less productive than workers in Germany and the Netherlands, who work shorter hours on average but were found to be more productive.

Higher productivity suggests employees have:

  • Better focus
  • Clearer thinking
  • Heightened efficiency.

However, there is reportedly no study giving a solid and exact explanation of why shorter working hours = increased productivity, nor is there a definite ‘golden number’ when it comes to working hours per week that make for optimum productivity levels.

2.     Better work-life balance = happier workers and companies

Of course, shorter working hours leave employees with more time to spend on their lives outside of work, which includes time for family, sleeping and resting, hobbies and leisure, working out, socialising, and more things that make for a balanced and satisfying lifestyle.

This is highly beneficial for workers in terms of their overall well-being, which in turn benefits companies. Happier, healthier, and well-rested employees mean:

  • Less chance of burnout from stress and overwork
  • Higher staff retention
  • More positive, energetic work environment
  • Enhanced efficiency and productivity

And so on.

3.     Economic benefits for companies

Another benefit of reduced working hours is that it can be more profitable and save costs for companies.

This is because the positive effect on employees’ well-being can mean a lower staff turnover, which saves businesses from the costs of finding new hires.

Another way shorter working hours can save companies money is that it means less use of company resources, especially in the case of companies with employees working onsite. For instance, companies will save on operational costs such as oil or electricity bills, and so on.

What to know for now

The Department of Employment and Labour particularly wants to focus on investigating the feasibility of shortening working hours in minimum-wage sectors; that is, domestic labour, farm labour, and so on.

More research will be needed before the department can make any changes to present working hours, including examining the progress that has been made since the last time working hours in South Africa were reduced as well as finding out if reducing the current working hours would be worthwhile and possible at present.

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