Can the UK break its long-hours habit?

The Working Times Regulations have had little impact on the long-hours
culture in the UK. As more firms cut paid overtime, staff have taken up the slack
through unpaid hours. Stephen Overell examines why Britain is so devoted to
long hours

Max Weber, founding father of sociology, blamed Protestantism for
encouraging people to develop a taste for hard work and so giving rise to
modern capitalism1. The reasoning was that Protestants, or at least Calvinists,
believed in predestination – the idea that good works or acts of faith did not
affect an individual’s place in heaven. You were either a member of ‘the elect’
(in which case you were in) or you were not.

However, this being a fickle notion, the population naturally became anxious
about their salvation and sought a reliable sign that they were destined for
heaven which they found in worldly prosperity. And so the force of religious
sanction came to be applied to working hard.

By 1904, at the time of Weber’s writing, religious conviction was already on
the wane, but the work ethic continued its ascension. "The idea of duty in
one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs,"
he wrote.

It is hard to believe that Britain has the longest working hours in Europe
because of its Protestant past – after all, Holland and Germany do not put in
the same hours, although they are both more productive. But then most
explanations of the UK’s addiction to long hours seem just as far-fetched.

Unpaid overtime

It certainly has little to do with economic necessity. According to the TUC,
British workers afford their employers £28bn a year in unpaid overtime, with more
than one in five undertaking extra unpaid time and professionals putting in an
average of 9.5 additional hours a week2. A separate TUC report found that the
number of people working more than 48 hours a week rose during 2001 to four
million, 16 per cent of the workforce3. Perhaps the most interesting thing,
though, is not these striking figures, but that despite the trade union
movement’s best efforts, working time has remained politically neutral.

Many jobs exist on the assumption that workers find them so absorbing that
it is unreasonable of them to object to doing a bit extra. In many occupations
there is an unspoken understanding that the jobs are impossible to do within
the compass of the average working day. Nine out of 10 organisations say the Working
Time Regulations have had "little or no impact" on them and where
they do, there is always the opt-out4. It is as if Britain’s first encounter
with the regulations was designed not to interfere with good hard graft.

Has this led the collective sap to rise among workers? Far from it. Instead,
there seems to be an ingrain-ed, resigned acceptance that long hours are
‘natural’ and failure to pay due homage to work carries an imputation of guilt.
Four fifths of employers tried to reduce paid overtime in the past year, a
recent analysis by IRS found5.

This trend has duly caused paid overtime to plummet. However, the decline in
paid overtime has not reigned in overtime per se. Some 81 per cent of employers
use unpaid overtime and a quarter say it is rising, and a massive 93 per cent
expect staff to work extra hours occasionally. Senior staff, professionals and
managers are most likely to work additional hours and stay until the job is
done. But these positions do not have a monopoly on this expectation. Unpaid
overtime is routine in financial services and among clerical workers generally.
Fidelity Investments, for example, says all employees "are expected to
work at least some hours without pay". IRS notes the issue of working time
has the potential to be "emotive".

HR professionals, under intense pressure to achieve greater flexibility
among their workforces, should probably garner some plaudits from their senior
managers for the fact that working time has not lived up to its potential. The
conspiratorially minded may even think they have pulled off a silent coup.

Powerful motivator

Should we assume from this that people work long hours through choice alone?
That is what the CBI thinks, and it must be partly right; people are not
drones, many enjoy their work and the work ethic is a powerful motivator.
Increasing numbers of staff may agree the idea of working nine-to-five and
leaving the moment the hour is up is losing its coherence in the modern labour
market. Task-oriented or project-based work does not sit easily with rigid
attitudes to working hours. One study undertaken by Ashridge Business School
recently found employees were the chief cause of the inexorable trend towards
working flexible hours6. Half the senior managers it interviewed predicted the
traditional nine-to-five working week would be obsolete by 2006. Curious,
though, how flexibility has come to be translated as longer working hours.

Yet given the subtle and insidious techniques workplaces have for making
people feel guilty for not pulling their weight or displaying the requisite
keenness, there is undoubtedly more to it than simple choice.

Focus group research done for the Government among low and medium earners
found workers were unwilling to challenge management insistence on their signing
an opt-out from the 48 hour limit7. Some felt compelled to exceed it because of
low basic wages. Elsewhere, it was simply ignored: "The most frequently
broken rights appear to be those around working time," the report noted.
Also, the National Association for Citizens Advice Bureaux has highlighted the
widespread tendency to flout the four weeks’ paid leave entitlement8.

"It is more a disappointment than a surprise that the UK’s first ever
comprehensive working time law failed to assert an employment agenda more in
tune with the Government’s ‘family friendly’ or ‘work-life balance’
initiatives," as one analyst put it9.

In February, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt promised to make
"serious inroads" into cutting excessive working hours within five
years. She believes the UK’s long hours culture may be harmful to individual
health and national productivity. It will be interesting to see what she comes
up with, although the suspicion is that reforming something as deeply ingrained
and zealously guarded as the British compliance with long working hours is
impossible without aggressive regulation.

Maybe Weber was right.

The taste for overwork is, if not exactly religious, then at least

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1 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max

2 TUC, press release, 20 March

3 About Time: A new agenda for shaping working life, TUC, 2002

4 IRS Employment Review, Issue 745, 2002;

5 IRS, as above

6 True Flexibility at work – attitudes towards the 24/7
cultures, Ashridge Business School, 2002

7 Wanting more from Work, by Laura Edwards and Nick Burkitt,
DfEE Research Brief, March 2001

8 Wish you were here, NACAB, September 2000

9 European Industrial Relations Observatory, Commentary, May

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