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Time use research for Wales: sleep, eat, work

29 August 2023
A person seen from above, sitting on an armchair, with a laptop on their lap. Under, a massive clock.
Credit: Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash.

Time use research asks individuals to describe what they do and how long they spend on each activity. This type of research has been key in identifying significant differences in the daily lives of different groups, particularly gender and class, noting that women and people of lower income tend to have less free time and are tasked with more unpaid labour, such as caring for children. Recent rounds of these studies have found that people have changed their behaviours since the pandemic, for instance by sleeping more and an increase in working from home that has been maintained after the end of lockdown. These results can then be used to not only better understand a population, but where divides are maintained, created, and what we can do to improve people’s lives.

Participants of this type of study are, of course, representative of a wider population, such as a city or country, and they fill out diaries for set period of time, such as one day or week (for example, “sleep – 8 hours; food preparation – 45 minutes”. These diaries can filled in by hand, called in to interviewers, or more recently, filled in online. While there are critiques about how participants are selected and how they document their activities, this method is crucial for understanding how individuals allocate their time, specifically to know differences among groups, such as gender and class. On 17 July 2023, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) presented its latest results for their time series, released on 4 July 2023. The ONS asked respondents to complete diaries for one week day and one weekend day.

Unfortunately, the results published regarding the population of Wales are not very detailed, but the ONS has since released further results upon request.  Generally, Wales is often grouped with England for these studies. Consequently, the number of respondents from Wales is relatively small, and they may not perfectly represent various segments of the Welsh population (like different regions or specific age groups in North Wales). As a result, it’s challenging to analyse the results for specific cross-sections of the population  These estimates are meant to be representative of the whole population and must protect the respondents, so we must be careful when interpretating them.

Our analysis for Wales shows that sleep and rest is the activity category that takes up the majority of time for men, women, employed and inactive, young and old. However, since the pandemic, men have been sleeping and resting slightly less while women have done so slightly more. Those who were employed also increased their sleep and relaxation time during the pandemic, but this trend reversed in 2021 and 2022. Individuals younger than 21 and those older than 65 tend to allocate more time to rest.

Care responsibilities, such as taking care of the household, care of children, elderly, and disabled individuals occupy more hours for women, those who are inactive, and those who are 65+ (apart from 2021). Rather than equalise these tasks, the pandemic seems to have created a greater divide among men and women. However, since then, those employed and inactive are now spending similar amount of average hours in care activities.

Four horizontal bar charts showing the average hours spent per activity by gender. Each chart refers to a year of the study, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023.

In terms of work hours, whether done remotely or elsewhere, the average for those employed stands at around 4.5 hours per day, but this includes both full-time and part-time workers. When considering both employed and inactive individuals, the average daily work time is approximately 3 hours. Working from home has seen a significant increase since the pandemic, notably for women in 2021, followed by a more substantial increase for men in 2022 and 2023. Overall, remote work saw an uptick across the board, with a greater increase seen among those between 18 and 64 years old, who were more active in the labour market.

Four horizontal bar charts showing the average hours spent per activity by employment or inactivity status. Each chart refers to a year of the study, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023.

Lastly, activities related to well-being and personal development, such as exercise and education, appear to be more prevalent among men, those who are employed, and those aged 45 to 64. As expected, individuals aged 18 to 44 spend more time on educational activities. This pattern raises concerns, as it could imply that individuals who are heavily involved in care responsibilities and may have financial constraints are neglecting their own well-being. The categories used in the study are relatively broad, and for the sake of visualisation, we have grouped them further. Consequently, we can’t fully grasp the nuances of what personal care means to each individual. Furthermore, even if we could, we still can’t determine interpret their feelings towards each activity, for instance, if a religious or political activity is indeed leisure, if DIY or gardening should not be included in household care. The ONS data also does not include travelling for work/commute.

Four horizontal bar charts showing the average hours spent per activity by age bracket. Each chart refers to a year of the study, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023.

In conjunction with other research, these findings underscore the reality that different segments of the Welsh population likely do not have equal access to the same amount of free time or a similar range and quality of activities. We are aware that women are still the primary caregivers of children and elderly or disabled individuals in the home, more likely to work part-time, to work from home, and to study part-time. We are also aware that more individuals are delaying retirement but also assisting their children with childcare due to costs (report forthcoming by Wales Fiscal Analysis).

By understanding the societal structures that shape which activities certain groups are able to engage in, we can acknowledge that individuals are in need of better policies to support them and help create better, more fulfilling lives. These can include better social care that gives cares respite; improved access to education; more green and blue spaces; more funding to the arts, enabling individuals to attend cultural events; policies that tackle the gender and ethnic pay gaps in Wales and deter women and ethnic minorities from engaging in leisurely and well-being activities.