All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the old saying goes. Yet, according to TUC research said to be based on Office for National Statistics figures, five million workers in the UK are racking up nearly £5,000 in unpaid overtime every year.
It could be argued that this demonstrates that British managers are doing a great job and, as a result, their highly motivated teams are putting in the extra seven hours a week free of charge because they love their bosses, love their jobs and can’t wait to add to their unpaid tally.
Unfortunately, while this may be the case at a handful of organisations, we all know that this isn’t what’s really happening.
So why do people feel compelled to put in hour after hour of extra work for no extra reward? Why do we seemingly live in a nation obsessed with working ridiculously long hours? Why, out of pretty much the whole of Europe, should the UK cling so lovingly to the opt-out from the European Working Time Directive?
In the past, ‘futurologists’ have consistently predicted that by now we’d be living in the land of leisure that people would have more free time, more expendable income and more inclination to do as little as possible for as long as possible – preferably with a huge bag of money on a luxury yacht drifting around the Caribbean. Alas, they were not right.
Addicted to work
So what is it that is missing from people’s lives that they cannot bear to be away from the workplace for longer than is absolutely necessary?
At the poor end of the scale, the answer is simple: money. People want the option to do more than one badly paid job just to make ends meet – even if that means putting in a whole bunch of unpaid overtime to convince their bosses that they are committed to the cause.
For decades at the lower end of the pay spectrum, there was an unwritten rule of overtime, which meant the relatively poor could legitimately boost their earnings with the judicious use of extra hours paid at time-and-a-half or double time.
But since the near destruction of the unions and the dismantling of the ‘get a trade my son’ economy – the main reason for the great British skills gap today – by Margaret Thatcher and her cronies, the UK workforce has lacked confidence. And a workforce that lacks confidence is one that is ripe for exploitation by bosses and their shareholder paymasters. As a result, people put in extra hours just to keep their jobs, for in a buyers’ market people are expendable.
Paradoxically, at the other end of the scale, money is also the driving force. In the City that never sleeps, highly paid so-called high-fliers put in the hours to ensure they secure a £150,000 annual pay cheque and the prospect of a hefty bonus in the annual cash giveaway. City ‘whizz’ kids feel obliged to work as long as is humanly possible and then a few more hours on top (often aided by the latest fashion in class A drugs) to pay for the expensive sports car, Tudor mansion or Gothic country pile.
So it seems that those without can’t get enough and those with plenty are piling up the wealth and can’t spend it fast enough. Not exactly an equitable state of affairs.
Yet many City workers are just as fearful about their jobs as the rest of us, and the macho City culture has always taken in, chewed up and spat out its fair share of ambitious young traders.
The most worrying trend is the inexorable drift of this obsession with work into the fuzzy middle ground – the ground occupied by the vast majority of the working age population.
But who is extracting these unpaid hours from disgruntled workers up and down the country? Who is pulling the strings and making lives a misery?
Senior managers who’s mantra is the king of jargon ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’. The bosses who just can’t leave their desk. The middle managers who feel compelled to be there before you and leave after you. The ambitious oafs who desperately want to impress the middle manager by staying on late ‘to get things done’, thereby creating a cycle of self-destruction that has just been getting faster and faster.
So are HR departments across the land encouraging this kind of behaviour? Of course not. But neither are they doing anything to stop it, and perhaps it’s about time they did.
According to the TUC, if workers put in all their unpaid hours upfront, then they’d not start earning money until 22 February. And to register this in the collective mind of the nation, the union lobby group has designated this day as ‘Work Your Proper Hours Day’.
Undoubtedly a commendable idea in a nation seemingly obsessed with working ridiculously long hours. And it provides a golden opportunity for HR to get in there and insist that everybody – including their boss, their bosses’ boss and the chief executive – takes up the TUC challenge.
For unless those at the very top -the likes of Gordon Brown and his Cabinet colleagues – start working sensible hours, what chance does HR or the unions have of convincing anyone else?
And things have been getting better – albeit slowly. In 2005, Work Your Proper Hours Day didn’t take place until 25 February. Slow progress, but a move in the right direction.
Only another 22 years to go.