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Part-time work and productivity

Executive Summary

Part-time work can be lifeline for women, enabling them to continue in their chosen career but can also become a life sentence, trapping them in jobs that offer limited chances of skill development or advancement. Women working in variable hours part-time jobs face even more severe problems. While they may be helping firms cut labour costs and increase productivity, the employees experience insecure income and unpredictable schedules to meet employer needs, not care obligations. Policies that mitigate these effects on part-time employees should improve their chances of living productive lives.  This should benefit not only those working part-time but also, and particularly in the longer term, the wider economy and society.

This paper explores the role played by part-time work in the UK’s productivity problem. Part-time is the UK’s most frequently used form of flexible employment, accounting for 24% of all employees, 75% of whom are women. Sustainable productivity growth requires a focus on the well-being, development, and full potential of individual workers including those who work part-time.

The paper points to two main problems with research on part-time work and productivity.

  • First, there are different types of part-time work with different implications for productivity. These range from, at one end of the spectrum, part-time jobs designed mainly to retain higher skilled staff to, at the other end, part-time jobs used to target paid labour hours to variable demand. In the middle of the spectrum are more regular part-time jobs with more stable hours though offering low pay and limited career prospects.
  • The second problem is that productivity effects have been mainly assessed at the firm or workplace level but without reference to whether part-time work is a help or hindrance to leading productive lives. By productive lives we mean not only the opportunity to learn, develop and utilise skills and talents to the full, but also opportunities to avoid work contexts that may cause stress and ill-health.

Key findings

The paper first explores the facts that have been leading to greater heterogeneity in types of part-time work. Women’s investments in education combined with new rights to request flexible working is increasing the share of part-time work aimed at retention. However, part-time work only accounts for 17% of white collar and professional occupations where most retention-type part-time work is found even though it accounts for 44% of all part-time employees. At the same time, new technologies have enabled employers to use part-time work to target staffing at peaks of demand. Just short of half of all part-time work is in these occupations where also close to half of the overall workforce is part-time. Here part-time work has become embedded in employers’ labour utilisation and cost reduction strategies.

The second half of the paper reviews extant evidence on the productivity impact of part-time work, differentiating both between types of part-time work and between productivity effects at the workplace and the impact of part-time work on opportunities for people, particularly women, to lead productive lives.

Evidence on productivity impacts at the firm level of regular part-time is mixed but suggests that opportunities to reduce wage costs and provide cover may outweigh any extra admin burdens or training costs. Retention-type part-time jobs help the retention of skills, but employers still fail to offer opportunities for significant further skill development, rationalised by doubts over the capacities or motivations of part-time staff. However, this may reflect prejudice, similar to that expressed against remote working pre-pandemic and may reflect failures to properly design part-time jobs or to keep workloads for full-timers at sustainable levels.

In contrast, variable hours part-time work reduces costs and raises work intensity in service and elementary occupations, but these productivity benefits may be at the expense of both time and financial insecurity for the part-time workers. Research suggests that employers may vary schedules more than the actual variation in demand due to poor planning.

This review suggests that while part-time work can be a mechanism to enable productive lives by allowing retention in career jobs and/or reducing work burdens for those with care responsibilities or ill-health, it also may limit talent utilisation even for those able to secure a retention-type part-time job. These problems are exacerbated by a lack of rights both to flexible working or to return to full-time work.  Variable part-time work may cause stress with implications for health due to the insecurities of schedules and income, particularly for people in mid-life.


  • Human Capital




J. Rubery, I. Bi-Swinglehurst, A. Rafferty (2024) Part-time work and productivity, Insights Paper 031, The Productivity Institute.