Although the concept of work hours – as the period of time a worker spends at paid labour – is nowadays commonly accepted, it only emerged with the Industrial Revolution – when the labour ceased to be seasonal and dependent on daylight.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the working day had 14-16 hours, and labourers used to work every day, except Sundays and Holidays. The reluctance of the factory owners to stop the production led to the adoption of an employment practice called shift work. This practice consists in dividing the day into sets of periods during which different groups of workers labour and demands the adoption of measures to mitigate its negative effects (for example, sleep disorders).

The realisation that there would be a need of rest and fruition from workers to be able to cope and ensure productivity by employers, led to Robert Owen’s prosed division as coined in the slogan: Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours in the 19th century. This research guide is structured and shaped around the understanding of the different dimensions of each of these ‘shifts.

During the 20th century, and with the contributions of trade unions and collective bargaining, the work hours were cut down by almost half.
Currently, within the EU legal framework, the weekly working hours are limited to forty-eight hours every seven days. Among other rights, all the workers are granted a minimum of eleven consecutive hours of rest per day, a minimum of twenty-four hours of uninterrupted rest per week, and special protection in case of night work. Specifically in the case of pregnant workers, workers who have recently given birth, or workers who are breastfeeding, they are not obliged to perform night work.

However, the concept of ‘work hours’ excludes all the time spent in unpaid work, such as care and housework, and these tasks continue to fall back more on women than men. As this inequality persists, even though women’s participation in the labour market increased, work-life balance policies remain a priority at the EU level and are essential to change gender stereotypes and gender gaps.


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