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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 11:26 GMT
Are we working too many hours?
Union leaders are calling on the UK Government to limit the working week to 48 hours - in line with the rest of the EU.

Nearly four million people in Britain work more than 48 hours every seven days, which trade unionists describe as a "national disgrace.

They want the Government to implement a European directive that would impose a limit on the average number of hours worked per week.

In the UK workers work an average 43.6 hours, the European average is 40.3. In France the average is just 35 hours.

What can be done to cut back our working hours? How can employers use their staff's time more effectively?


This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your comments

As a professional in the IT industry and I see daily one obvious reason why people in my FTSE100 company work such extreme hours. Bad management. It is as simple as that. The UK does not have a culture of training managers in how best to do there job. Staff seem to drift towards management positions and never taught to run a team or manage their workload. The sad thing is that the British work more hours than our continental cousins but are less productive. Sort British management out and you'll sort the extremely dangerous situation we have of long hours.
Simon Atkinson, UK

I have read many of the comments posted on this Talking Point and one point is very clear - most people concerned about how long they work do NOT enjoy their jobs! I am 40, male, live in Canada and have worked many different jobs and I too complained when I worked long hours but only when I did not like what I did. We work one third of our waking day 5 days a year for fifty years of our lives. We all have the power to choose what we want from life. We can quit bad jobs, we can move somewhere to find better jobs, we can choose self-employment and we can choose to retrain for a more rewarding career and lifestyle. If you hate working long hours, go find a new job and make sure its what you really want to do.
Wilbur Tarnasky, Vancouver, Canada

My employer asked me to waive my rights under the EU 48 hour Directive. I was given the choice not to waive, but more or less told I had to, or they would be unable to find me suitable work. As a result, I work an average of 58 hours a week. Perhaps legislating against this sort of pressure from employers would go some way towards resolving the problem of overstressed, overtired, under productive and dissatisfied employees.
Susan, UK


In the USA, my employers treat me like an adult.

Ruth, USA ex-UK
Having worked in Europe and the USA, in addition to the UK, what strikes me is the attitude of employers, and I believe this is the cause of the long-hours culture. In Germany, everyone works very hard, no gossip, no chat, solid working, and no overtime, but pay was based on age not performance. In the USA, my employers treat me like an adult. They don't care when or where I work (I can work from home whenever I want), they TRUST me, and, therefore, I want to do a good job. In the UK, my employers treated me like a child, I was never rewarded for good performance, thanked for good work, and if I walked out 10mins early eyebrows were raised. I probably work longer hours now than I ever have before. The difference is - I don't mind. I do it because I want to, because I know I shall be rewarded for good performance, and that leaves me unstressed. So, sorry UK PLC, I'm not coming back any time soon!
Ruth, USA (ex-UK & Germany)

Surely if working hours were cut, productivity among staff would increase naturally - people would be able to work better if they weren't trying to combat exhaustion from trying to do too much. Wouldn't this solve the problems faced by burnt-out employees as well as the company that drives them??
Elizabeth Wilson, UK

Although I am not a "professional" and my contact states that I work a 35 hour week, they way it works out is some weeks you can work upwards of 45 hours and others as little as 20 hours, this puts massive pressure on you since it goes from one extreme to the other, and if I could work a straight 35 or even 40 hour week, my life outside work would be far less stressful. I don't think it is always the number of hours you work, as in my case, it is how you work them.
Paul Gibson, Newcastle UK

I'm working every day this month, and around a third of them I'm working for more than 12 hours. As a junior doctor you cannot afford to make a mistake. As well as that if you do make a mistake due to overtiredness then you have to carry the can. My view is that 35 hours per week is probably about the right balance between work and leisure. Certainly working too many hours a week isn't good for safety and certainly isn't good for your health. As an aside, there must be many road accidents each year due to commuting drivers being too tired due to overwork.
Adrian, UK


The problem is not long hours, the problem is inefficiency.

Anthony O'Sullivan, UK
Having lived and worked in the United States, one of the first things I noticed when I got back is the lack of a focused work ethic in the UK, especially in the service industries. Sure, people may turn up at work and be physically present, but the idea of working hard is frequently absent. The same TUC which commissioned this report is remarkably silent on the fact that British workers are significantly less productive than their German, Japanese or American counterparts. Thus, the average American adds a full 50 per cent more to the nation's wealth than his British counterpart. The problem is not long hours, the problem is inefficiency.
Anthony O'Sullivan, UK

I am a British American living in the USA. I totally agree with the British stand on working marginally less and spending more time with family and at home. I think the tragedies that we see in the US, like employees going to work and shooting their colleagues comes from frustration and lack of socialization. I work an average of 55 hours a week and I am only paid for 40 of them. If I choose to work less hours I am almost guaranteed to be sacked. Thank God the British are getting smart before a tragedy happens.
Kesh, USA

Hard work never did anyone any harm. In fact, it's good for self-esteem. Mind you, I accept that there's little point working longer hours when it's possible to work with greater efficiency. It's better to work smarter than to work harder, and it sure will have a positive impact as to stress.
Damian , London, England

After moving to the States to work, I have been shocked by the expectation for working long hours over here. Incredible demand by corporate America sees that I work on average 70 hours a week, and as I am salaried no overtime, it's a utter scandal. I'm really looking forward to moving home in the next year and actually get my life back.
C Fox, working in the US

The long work hours is another symptom of how we have got things out of balance in the UK. We work long hours, pay high taxes and yet seem to have little to show for either of them. In contrast our partners on the Continent seem to live better, have better services and have time to have fun. I feel the "hired hands" syndrome is still too prevalent in UK commerce and industry, partnership and teams - only when the firm is doing well, the first sign of a downturn it's back to "us and them".
John Bradford, UK


A lot of illness is down to working so hard

Claire, UK
As a teacher I work in school from 8.30 to 5.45pm almost every day. Usually, I will then take a couple of hours worth of marking home with me. Last week, due to staff illness, I only had 1 out of a possible 3 hours of non-contact time and also lost most of my lunchtimes. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but teachers are not whingers, we would just like to be recognised for the hard work that we put in beyond our directed time and for someone to consider the possibility of paying us for the extra hours that we do to enhance the curriculum for our pupils - clubs, fixtures, theatre trips, etc. I am also quite sure that a lot of illness is down to working so hard and for many people to be reluctant to take a day off until they are virtually on their knees with illness.
Claire, UK

I moved to New Zealand from Britain and the work culture differences are amazing. The 'official' hours of work here are usually 40 hours per week, but in many cases people don't go beyond that. Plus the commuting time is much less - people here in Christchurch scoff if it's more than half an hour. I am lucky enough to work from home. Although I only work 30 hours, I get as much done as my full-time colleagues. The added bonus is the commute to my office takes 5 seconds. I have to say my stress levels are infinitely lower than when I was part of the British 'rat race'!! Have fun guys, life's too short!
Louisa Clery, Christchurch, New Zealand

A culture of over work is a sign of an unhealthy society. How can we be expected to become participatory stakeholders in our local communities when many of us are just too tired and exhausted by our workloads. Both public and private sector should take a lead in recognising the benefits of a fresh and energised workforce and try harder to support their 'capital' the workers. How about performance pay for managers being linked to workers perceptions...
Steve Soames, UK

I live in Japan, and here, far more than when I worked in London, is the long hours culture taken to the extreme. Japanese colleagues will always work longer hours than their bosses and compete to stay the latest, even when they have finished their tasks for the day, in order to show dedication to the company. When I started working at a fast-paced media company in Tokyo I was determined not to sacrifice my home life for my work. I therefore worked very hard when I was there, but made sure I always left when the work was completed, at a reasonable hour. At first I had to be very thick skinned about how this looked to my colleagues, but soon the results I achieved in a shorter time showed up those people who worked longer hours and achieved less. This gradually helped change the working culture of the company as people realised you didn't have to work longer to be better at your job. I know sometimes long hours are unavoidable, but unless you're prepared to make a stand sometimes you have yourself to blame in contributing to the working culture of long hours.
Sue, Japan

Americans work, on average, 200-500 more hours a year than their European counterparts. Many I know find a 11 hour day normal. I would LOVE to only have to work 40 hours a week. Enjoy and rejoice in your already substantial free time!!!
Don H., USA


The employee is in a lose-lose situation

Mark M, London
People feel they need to be seen to be putting in the hours. Their bosses got to where they are by doing exactly that, so the office culture stays that way. Social pressure to not let the team down puts work before family and friends. When the economy slows down, like now, people get made redundant no matter how hard they worked. The result: the employee is in a lose-lose situation in our wonderfully efficient brave new world.
Mark M, London, UK

I work between 11 and 13 hours a day every week and often work Saturdays and Sundays too. I work in the media and the expectation level is there from the employers and it is regarded as the norm. I'm now 36 and have worked like this for 20 years. I enjoy my job, I get well paid, nobody makes me work this schedule, but my product would suffer if I didn't. It's certainly no good for health or family life.
Stuart, UK

The French experience with the 35 hour week has shown that reducing working hours can led to beneficial organisational change and the introduction of more modern working methods, at least in larger firms. The problem in Britain is largely a cultural one, involving deeply ingrained beliefs and habits. The answer is to encourage cultural change in firms, for example, along the lines advocated by Rob Parsons in his fascinating new book, Heart of Success.
John M. Evans, France

The whole culture here is wrong. You need to work smarter not harder. How many people across the country are assumed to be harder working just because they stay late ,and how many people across the country are assumed to be lesser employees just because they leave on time? Only because they are so much more efficient at what they do.
Colin Mackay, UK

The reason that we end up working such ridiculous hours is greed: personal greed and shareholder greed. Shareholders demand a higher return on their investment which usually requires reduced fixed costs in the absence of high sales and margins. We as individuals demand ever increasing purchasing power. This has two effects: suppression of manufacturing prices, which means that manufacturing fixed costs have to go down and secondly wage inflation. Wage inflation combined with lower fixed costs from competitors outside of the Western world means that in order to meet reduced fixed costs in the UK, we need to have fewer workers. Fewer workers means more work per individual, despite increasing technology improvements. Our greed is probably irreversible, but for those who are prepared to accept a lower wage, less demanding jobs are usually out there.
Charles Macdonald, UK

If the majority of the population were paid better, not just nurses and teachers (although I think their jobs do deserve better pay and conditions) then we as a nation would be better off generally. However in this country there is a huge fear factor over the majority of the population about if I don't stay late then it looks bad, never mind that people have outside commitments such as family. It's the responsibility of both employers and employees to establish a working environment that is suitable for all concerned. If people want to work more hours or less then its up to them, as long as their contract obligations are met. Employers need to be more flexible.
J Black, UK


Please don't assume that the UK has a monopoly on long hours

Oliver L, Germany
I'm an Expat working in Germany. I believe that many British people have a misconception that life on the continent is sweetness and light. I work for a mid-sized German manufacturing company and find that when I leave the office after an 11 hour day there are still cars in the carpark. Please don't assume that the UK has a monopoly on long hours.
Oliver L, Germany

I work 9 to 5 every day. I refuse to work more than 35 hours per week, as it is unhealthy and also unproductive in the long term. And I should know, I used to be one of these poor souls, working all day and night, for a ludicrous wage, and getting no thanks for the extra work. People who are forced to work long hours are being taken for a ride and are clearly not respected by their employers.
Simon, England

Yes we work too long every day. We work too hard during the day as well. Most of us are not paid to put up with this kind of stress. And at the end of the day, we're not appreciated either for giving up out lives for our company. Some companies do (give us a job!), but they are rare. One of the other reasons we are working too long is that our company's business extend beyond the normal 9 to 5. E-Commerce has forced us to re-think a lot of our strategies. System updates after 6pm are no longer acceptable, and for some systems impossible to do until the wee hours of the morning. The world of business never sleeps, and sometimes neither do we. Of course, there are ways to alleviate this kind of stress, but most employers will not accept our proposals, plans, or even simple suggestions until its too late, the damage is done, and someone suffers for it, either mentally, physically, or financially. Where do we begin?
Tele, UK

I do not like the idea of any Government telling me how many hours I can or cannot work! There is a difference between unscrupulous employers and ambitious people. France has slipped behind Britain in the economy stakes because of its lumbering social policies. I don't want to work 35 hours a week until I am sixty - I want to work 70 hours a week until I am thirty five and then play golf for the rest of my life. Don't deny me my dreams! No entrepreneur made their empires working 35 hour weeks.
James, England

Let's not forget that a large part of the working day for many, is the actual travel. The crowded roadwork-ridden roads and poor public transport mean that many are forced into loosing "family" time just to get to work and then back home again. A 15 minute journey at 7am takes up to 40 minutes an hour later, with all the stress that goes with it. To avoid the extra travel times and stress I arrive 1 hour early and leave hour later. On some occasions I have left at the correct time only to find myself arriving home at the time I would have if I had left an hour later!
Paul, UK

Union leaders have long since approved of long hours by never condemning overtime and using it as a tool for industrial action. So let's have some honesty
Vic Price, Scotland

Working long hours is one thing, but we should not be made to feel guilty for not staying after your contracted time. Surely employers should recognise a member of staff who is productive and manages their own time well. We go on about productivity. Then they employers should measure staff precisely by that rather than actual hours in the office. Concentrate on the positive and it guarantees an increase in production. If you do have a member of staff who is lazy and abuses the system, then you don't want that person in your company anyway. Focus where it counts!
Winnie Crews, Hong Kong

We should also be taking into account the time and stress of travelling to work. I spend between 37 and 40 hours a week working. On top of that there is another 15 or 20 hours spent just to and from work.
Paul R, UK

I think the reduced powers of the trade unions imposed by Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s was a good thing, but it was taken much too far and now trade unions are afraid to move in case they are disbanded. If responsible trade unionism can be reintroduced to Britain then hopefully they will be able to make a strong case for reduced working hours.
James Siddle, UK

As a doctor, my average working week is 70 hours a week. The Government have excluded doctors from the European union directive. However, if a doctor makes a mistake as a result of being overtired as a direct result of the hours worked, he is personally responsible, not his employer(HMG). As a doctor, you must live with this double standard, have a reduced life outside your job, certainly not appreciate the "family friendly" suggestion by Mr Blair.
Phil, England


It's no wonder that we've become an apathetic nation, when we're just too exhausted to care after all our working hours

Russ Moore, UK
It goes to show that the "just do it" factor lies with the public, not with the government, in this land. I think it's clear that British people take an enormous amount of pride in their work and are committed to doing a good job in the workplace, and for that we should applaud ourselves. We keep our economy buoyant, and keep external investors coming back for more. However, my concern is that our commitment is putting pressure on the issues we face outside of work - there's no time for living a normal life, shopping, and cooking, let alone caring about politics or the environment or relationships. It's no wonder then, that we've become an apathetic nation.

We're just too exhausted to care after all our working hours (at least, those of us who aren't permanently on call). When I think about the effort the public put into making money for foreign companies, I wonder why we don't have the opportunity to channel our energy into rebuilding this nation's infrastructure. This might not impress our foreign investors but it would get public transport up and running!
Russ Moore, UK

I work from 9 to 5:30, every day. Add on to that the commuting time London Underground and Connex South Central bestowed upon me every day (when it is running correctly, on time and trouble free), which amounts to three hours there and back - 11.5 in total. Invariable travel delays often add up to an hour or more on top. This gives me about an hour with my kids. If we're a part of the European Union, how come we never seem to adopt any of its good practices - working hours, medical, travel and so on?
Frank, UK

If everyone joined a trade union and fought for the right to only work those hours they are paid for under the terms of their contract, then the UK would be a healthier, happier and more productive nation. Also, although some employees may like to work longer hours without compensation, they are raising the expectations of the employers who will expect to see a similar level of commitment from the whole workforce. Lastly, the government should recognise that it isn't just the private sector office workers who are working long, stress-filled hours. Workers in the health and education sectors should also have reasonable hours.
Daniel Brett, Cambridge, England


This is a symptom of cost cutting in this country

Mark, UK
They will never cut working hours. If employers insist on long hours then workers have little choice. As a professional, if your work is not done then you do it until it is. This is a symptom of cost cutting in this country.
Mark, UK

Mark, UK has missed the point completely. The point of a contract of employment is to agree what I, the worker, am expected to do and what my employer is expected to provide in return. If everybody refused to work all hours then companies would be forced to hire more people. Unfortunately as soon as one or two break ranks and accept impositions then the company can say "But look at X, they don't complain about it". A company can sack individual workers, but would struggle to cope if it sacked everybody.
Karl Peters, UK

Yes we are working too hard and we should remember that on top of more than 48 hours a week of work, a lot of people, particularly in the South East, spend two to four hours a day commuting - which means cramming into trains and the tube in conditions worse than those we use to transport animals to slaughter, or sitting in jams with blood -pressure through the roof through frustration. The end result is that all housework, laundry, shopping and so on gets done on the Saturday, giving people one Saturday evening and one Sunday to relax. This is crazy, but it requires government-level action and a total change in emphasis to give people their lives back.
Jeremy, England

Working in the communications industry, I regularly work long hours. When able to leave on-time I am made to feel that I am letting the team down. It is this mentality that contributes to the hours we all have to work - the end product is so client-led that the decision makers will not say no to a deadline and instead expect people to work extra hours for no additional benefits.
Dan, England

Providing the hours are really voluntary and flexible, then people should be able to work as many as they like. The problems occur when people are forced to work long hours due to work pressures or low pay.
Trevor, UK

My hours are limited to 36 per week and on the whole I am able to maintain them. But there are plenty of other jobs where hours are known to be extended for various reasons - daylight/good weather and shortage of staff. In the latter case, junior doctors, nurses, the police and anyone else in the public sector are expected to cover the shortfall, often unpaid. This must send a message to the current government.
Hazel, UK


While my company has just made people redundant, many of those who remain are working longer hours, often without any compensation

Steve Harrison, UK
What concerns me most of all is that while the company I work for has just made a significant number of people redundant, many of those who remain are working ever longer hours, often without any compensation. The pressures of business appear to be forcing companies to squeeze more and more work out of each individual in order to remain competitive.
Steve Harrison, UK

It wouldn't be necessary if people could do the jobs they were employed for. I have witnessed so many people woefully inexperienced for the role they occupy and they have to compensate for that inexperience by working longer hours - or more often the staff under them have to work longer hours to clean up the mess!
Steve F, UK

The number of hours that anyone works should be up to themselves. Restrictions on hours, unless required to ensure the safety of others, can only be detrimental to the economy and thus ultimately to all of us. If the government feels a need to get involved then it must focus on ensuring that the individual has the opportunity to select a job that fits their lifestyle, but let the individual remember that it is right for those who work harder (not necessarily longer) to be rewarded appropriately.
Mark, UK

I agree with the sentiment of Dan F - we should work to live, not live to work. However, I think the overall theme of the comments above seems to be - ease back, work a little less, take it easy. If we all do that companies are less successful, profits are lower leading to lower corporate taxes and investment in the UK. Less jobs follow, with less spending by those people newly out of work. This also affects the resources available to invest in the infrastructure, leading to worse services and more frustration for the people travelling to work - especially those in the South East who are complaining in the messages below! Sort of a vicious circle. I think the fact that the European countries are saddled with these laws - which are applied on an uneven basis anyway since they do not apply to managers - gives the UK a competitive advantage in attracting investment. I hope the Government resists joining and applies a common sense and pragmatic, rather than bureaucratic, approach.
Warren, UK Expat

We really should take a leaf out of Europe's book on this one. If you cannot relax and enjoy life, what is the purpose of working if not to allow you the means to relax and enjoy yourself? If we were all in less of a rush perhaps there wouldn't be so much pent up frustration and anger out there.
Dan F, England


Talking PointFORUM
Overworked?
TUC and CBI experts took your questions
See also:

04 Feb 02 | Business
Long hours a 'national disgrace'
25 Jun 01 | Health
Stress: The effects
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