Let’s call time on the UK long-hours debate

May, a month with two Bank Holiday weekends, is marked each year by the
ritual criticism of the UK’s so-called ‘long-hours culture’, and is often
accompanied by calls for a French-style statutory 35-hour week. But statistics
show the long hours debate creates a distorted picture of working time in the
UK, and leads to faulty policy prescriptions.

The common assertion that we are all working longer hours is unfounded. The
average working week has reduced by more than an hour since the mid-1990s.
Full-timers (now averaging 37.4 hours a week) are putting in around an
hour-and-a-half less each week, although part-timers (working an average of
15.6 hours) are working half an hour longer. Likewise, between 1995 and 2003,
the proportion of people who usually work more than 45 hours a week dropped
from 25.8 per cent to 22.4 per cent.

When making comparisons with other EU countries, it is also important to
look at the spread of the working hours. In continental Europe, the majority of
people (typically two-thirds or more) work a standard week of around 35 to 40
hours, with relatively few putting in longer or shorter hours. In the UK, by
contrast, a ‘typical’ working week is far harder to define.

Although just under a quarter of British people in employment (6.3 million)
work more than 45 hours a week – a far higher proportion than in other EU
countries – just over a quarter put in fewer than 30 hours a week. This is also
a far higher proportion than the rest of the EU. On this basis, therefore, it
could be said, with equal justification, that the UK actually has a
‘short-hours culture’ by European standards.

So why do so many people complain about the hours they work? The answer lies
in the greater pressure people are under nowadays both in the workplace and in
their personal lives, rather than the amount of time they put in at the office
or factory per se.

The best response to over-work, therefore, is to encourage a restructuring
of working hours and improved work-life balance practices, rather than a
substantial cut in the length of the working week. Fortunately, this is more or
less the policy approach being adopted by the Government.

If employers were compelled to cut hours instead, the likely response would
be to try to raise hourly productivity by increasing the intensity of each hour
worked. This of course would pile even greater pressure on workers to get more
done in less time. This would lead to a self-defeating outcome, if the
objective is to reduce over-work and related stress.

By John Philpott, Chief economist, Chartered Institute of Personnel and

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