One of the strategies that companies and countries use to try to reduce “work-to-family interference” (a term sociologists use for a concept that’s fairly close to work-life balance) is to shorten work hours. The theory is that shorter work hours give people more freedom and time with their families. Good things, right?

Well, a new study by Leah Ruppanner and David J. Maume on “Shorter Work Hours and Work-to-Family Interference: Surprising Findings from 32 Countries” published in Social Forces finds that things are a little more complicated. Here’s the abstract:

For many, work interferes with their home life. To mitigate this encroachment, many welfare states have legislated shorter workweeks. Yet, the effectiveness of this policy on work-to-family interference is mixed, thus requiring additional investigation. We address this gap by applying multilevel data pairing the 2005 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) for individuals in 32 nations (N = 20,937) with country-level measures of legislated weekly work hours, mean reported weekly work hours (aggregated and differentiated by gender), and individualistic/collectivist orientations. We find that legislated work hours have no impact on individuals’ reports of work-to-family interference. By contrast, shorter normative weekly work hours, aggregated and by gender, are associated with greater individual work-to-family interference. We find an equivalent pattern in individualistic countries. While we document individual-level gender and parental differences, we find no differential effects of long workweeks for these groups. We explain these associations through the heightened expectations perspective, arguing that increased resources heighten expectations of work–life balance and sensitivity to work-to-family interference.

So the problem is that for lots of people, having more flexible schedules or more time creates a higher expectation that you’ll do a great job juggling family and work. Implementing the solution unintentionally creates a new performance standard, and keeps the problem hard to solve.

This is a classic problem in economics, first (I think) articulated in Jevons’ Law. In the 19th century, Stanley Jevons observed that as factories became more efficient, factory owners didn’t consume less coal, and thus save themselves some money; instead, they consumed the same amount of coal (or even more), and used the “savings” to produce even more goods. Likewise, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains in her book More Work for Mother, the electrification of household technologies didn’t lead to a decline in the number of hours women spent doing housework: instead, it led to higher standards of cleanliness, and a gendering of housework that freed men from household obligations.

This is not to say that more free time, or other savings, are automatically bad; but these studies all make clear that we have to be thoughtful about these gains, and not fall into the trap of unintentionally raising our standards and thus setting ourselves up for failure.