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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.
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.
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.
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.
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??
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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!
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...
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
TUC and CBI experts took your questions
04 Feb 02 | Business
Long hours a 'national disgrace'
07 Nov 01 | Health
Long hours 'stress British workers'
25 Jun 01 | Health
Stress: The effects
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