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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 12:31 GMT
Are we working too hard? You asked the experts

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Nearly four million people in the UK are working more than 48 hours a week as Britain ignores European limits, new figures show.

UK workers are now putting in longer hours, despite the implementation of Europe's working time directive.

The long hours culture has been dubbed a "national disgrace" by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

On Monday the TUC publishes a report entitled "About Time" on how to tackle the long hours working culture.

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

The author of the TUC's report Paul Sellers and Jay Sheth, policy advisor for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), answered your questions in a live forum.


Highlights of the interview:


Newshost:

Martin Adams, UK: I currently work 40-50 hours per week. Are you saying I can be as secure in my job and earn and learn just as much (in the long-term) by working just 35 hours per week? I'd love you to show me the calculations.


Paul Sellers:

First of all we are talking about a 48-hour week limit. I am sure if Martin, his union and his employer got together they could reorganise work to cut off those extra two hours. In other countries there has been a more fundamental rethink the way work is organised. France manages to have a 35-hour week with high wages and high productivity - why can't we do the same?


Newshost:

Jay, how do you respond to that question? He is obviously cynical about whether this can really work.


Jay Sheth:

I think one of the interesting things about the TUC report is that when asked whether people would like to work a shorter week, a lot of people did say yes. But when they're asked whether they're prepared to take a pay cut to work a shorter week, then the figures drop alarmingly. So in the UK economy, people have to accept if they're going to work shorter hours, that there is going to be a pay implication and I think this is where the argument falls apart - people don't want to see those drastic pay cuts.


Newshost:

Jessica Gress-Wright, Damsholte, Denmark: Some say flexible labour market policies contribute to the long hours culture by deregulating labour markets. In unregulated markets, people are more fearful for their jobs. Can you comment?


Paul Sellers:

I think that's true. We do need some minimum standards to make sure that people aren't abused. The questioner has hit the nail right on the head. Working very long hours doesn't give employers or employees very much flexibility - it squeezes out the chance to be flexible, to be trained or to have much time with your family.


Jay Sheth:

I agree entirely that minimum standards are required and that's what the working time regulations at present do. They have minimum standards so that no one can work more than 48 hours without signing the opt-out. But I think beyond that it's a matter of choice for people. I think it is up to people to make their own decisions whether they can work more than 48 hours, whether they feel able to work more than 48 hours - people make different choices. That's why some people choose to work part-time, some people choose to work full-time and some people maybe choose to work more than 48 hours a week.


Newshost:

Text message from Jenny, Birmingham, UK: I have just left a job where I was paid for 39 hours a week but was expected to do at least 50 hours with no overtime pay or time off.

So it's all very well to say, it's a question of choice, but sometimes people have these situations imposed upon them. Would you not agree?


Jay Sheth:

Yes, there are ways that the organisation of work can be improved and yes there are problems out there. We're not saying that everything is perfect in the UK. But what we are trying to say is that this issue needs to be tackled seriously and sensibly - where there are problems they should be tackled. But the working time regulations do provide a minimum framework and that should be the role of legislation in this area.


Newshost:

Paul, what do you say to that text message - is that something quite common do you think?


Paul Sellers:

That's not uncommon. We did a survey to find out why people worked extra hours. For white-collar workers, the main reason is simply that they are given too much work to do. So we should be having a debate that also looks at work organisation, productivity and investment as well as at working hours.


Newshost:

A question addressed to you Jay, this comes from Kate, Birmingham, UK: Do you feel the EU is interfering by setting working limits, in reality most people in the UK have to work more than their set limits just to survive?


Jay Sheth:

We have the working time regulations in place - the directive that has come from the European Union. The CBI supports the regulations. We believe they provide a good minimum framework of rights for people to prevent them being exploited. But we don't feel that legislation should go further than this and we certainly don't think it's the role of the European Union or for anyone else to tell people that they can't work more than 48 hours when they wish to.


Newshost:

Another text message we have here which is anonymous but again a situation which I think is very relevant. Anon, UK: Having signed the work time directive in order to highlight the inability to take my annual vacation I was first ostracised and swiftly made a downsized victim.


Paul Sellers:

That is a terrible situation. If that person had been in a trade union we would have fought it, taken it to an employment tribunal and won them compensation or reinstatement. There is actually a fine of up to 50,000 for pressuring people to opt out of their rights in the working time regulations.


Newshost:

Jay, what would you say to that text message?


Jay Seth:

What we've always said is that the regulations should be properly enforced and that's our position that the regulations should be adhered to. Overwhelmingly good employers do that and most employers in this country do adhere to the working time regulations. Where there are problems, such as this, it is a matter of enforcement of the existing regulations - that's the crux of the issue.


Newshost:

Jane Hodgkins, UK: Isn't it because we are prepared to work harder and longer than other European states is why our economy is stronger than theirs? How do we compare with the USA?


Jay Sheth:

The USA is an interesting example - most studies show that we work shorter hours than the USA and that we work shorter hours than Japan. Of course compared to the European Union, we work longer hours than most of our European neighbours. I think that the issue is that working long hours is about people having the choice to do that. It's about a lot of people - which I don't think we've really picked up on today - actually enjoying their work. I think that's something that doesn't really come out of the TUC report and something that's often ignored in the media headlines about who works longer hours than whom. A lot of professionals, a lot of managers actually get a great buzz from their work - it's very important to them and to artificially restrict people and tell them that you shouldn't be working these hours and that you should be more interested in something else - I don't think that's really the way we want policy in this country to go.


Newshost:

Several issues here Paul. The first, are we becoming very American in our "can do", "want to work" culture? But as Jay has pointed out, the majority of the people working long hours in the UK are managers and professionals who may enjoy working long hours and be workaholics. What's your response to the Jane's point?


Paul Sellers:

It is a common misconception to say that people want to work long hours. When we asked them why they worked long hours, the main reasons were either because they get paid overpaid overtime or because they have so much work to do. Yes there are some people who enjoy their jobs so much that they want to work long hours but they are very much in the minority.

Earlier in a debate, Jay mentioned the number of people who would like to cut their hours. In fact 12 million people want to change their hours - 1 in 2 people in the UK - and 2.5 million would be willing to take a pay cut to do it. Not everybody who is working long hours actually loves it.


Newshost:

Axel Macdonald, UK: Isn't there a link between two stories in the news today - long working hours and the high cost of housing in the south east of England. We have to work longer hours to pay our mortgages, even though mortgages are at an all time low!


Paul Sellers:

I think it's true to say that housing in the south of England has become too expensive and we need to ensure that there's sufficient housing and that people can move around the country to do the jobs they want. But it is not just the cost of the mortgage that is driving people to work long hours - there are other things, one of them being the amount of work that they're being given to do.


Newshost:

Bryan Goodwin, UK: Isn't this really just the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest? Aren't these hours demanded the result of "downsizing" with fewer people expected to deliver greater results and profits to survive?


Paul Sellers:

In terms of productivity, if somebody is working 50 - 70 hours - how much work do we actually think they're going to do in that 50th or 70th hour? Not as much as somebody does in the 30th hour, that's for sure because of the onset of fatigue. It can't be productive to work those sorts of hours.


Newshost:

Does the CBI see it this way? Doesn't the CBI recognise the fact that in some trades, some professions that it is more efficient to have somebody working fewer hours?


Jay Sheth:

I think individuals are different. Some people will find that they can work long hours and be productive, others will find that they can't. I don't think we can generalise about the way people react to working long hours.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Business
Long hours a 'national disgrace'
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