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Are we working harder, not smarter?

By Dennis Nickson - Posted on 7 March 2013

Professor Dennis Nickson, head of the Department of Human Resource Management, looks at current debates around working hours…

Last week millions of weary UK workers were encouraged to turn on their voicemail, switch off their computers, and leave work on time as part of Work Your Proper Hours Day. With unpaid overtime in the UK estimated to total around 2bn hours a year, the equivalent to more than £29bn in economic activity, the TUC campaign encouraged employees to think about their work-life balance, and how it impacts on their health, family life and productivity.

While the campaign shone a light on overtime in particular, recent international developments, including Gambia’s move to a four-day week, have ignited a wider debate on working hours in general. Of course, having a third day of rest sounds attractive, but what would the consequences be if the UK were to follow suit?

The truth is, there probably is no definitive answer. The EU Working Time Directive suggests that by law the maximum working week should be no more than 48 hours, though in reality around 6 million workers in the UK regularly work more than this figure. While some of this overtime will undoubtedly be productive, increasingly there are concerns people are working longer, rather than smarter, as a symptom of ‘presenteeism’.

While some argue improvements to people’s work-life balance would boost productivity by increasing their job satisfaction and well-being, others point to examples – such as the introduction of a four-day week for public sector workers in Utah – where such working arrangements have failed.

The idea of trying to reduce our working week is hardly new. The idea of a ‘leisure society’ in which people would work significantly fewer hours, as a result of technological progress, goes back many years. Famously, in the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted by the beginning of twenty-first century the working week would be cut to just 15 hours a week. An idea recently taken up again by the New Economics Foundation in their advocating of a ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours.

At present, the overall average working week in the UK is 36.4 hours per week, somewhat higher than, say, the Netherlands where it is just 30 hours. On paper, of course, this might appear ‘not too bad’, but consider this: how many of us regularly do more, often unpaid, hours than this?

While technology has changed work for the better, through increased automation and better health and safety for example, it has also made work more invasive in our home lives. How many of us have sneakily checked work e-mails while on holiday? Regardless of where we are, even if we are lying on beach in the Caribbean, it’s all too easy to get sucked into work through the screens of our Blackberrys, smartphones and other mobile devices.

In recent years there has also been greater focus on work-life balance in general, with more and more organisations introducing flexible working arrangements. Indeed, surveys tell us that pretty much all organisations now offer some sort of part-time working, job shares, flexitime or home working arrangements. In the UK, the introduction of government legislation in 2003 gave parents with a child under six the right to request flexible working arrangements for the first time. A decade on the entitlement has now been extended to cover carers of certain categories of adults and parents with children under 17, with proposals now under consideration to extend legislation even further to all workers.

While there is now widespread recognition that a shorter working week could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked, problems – overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, inequality and a general lack of wellbeing and quality of life, to name but a few – the three or four-day week would still appear to be some way off.

What is perhaps most interesting about this renewed debate about working time, is that it takes place at a time when the UK Government, as part of its discussions with Europe, has made clear its preference to completely opt-out of the Working Time Directive. Maybe this suggests we’re still not working hard enough, I’m not sure, but what is certain is that, as good an economist as he was, John Maynard Keynes was definitely no fortune teller when it came to working hours!

So are we working too hard and is it bad for us individually and societally? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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