The cause of the British addiction to long hours are much too complicated to
be tackled by legislation
The Working Time Regulations are five years old this week. Limiting the
number of hours worked was always a strange and foreign notion in the UK, and
no-one should be surprised that, for the most part, the regulations seem to
have made little difference.
The Government proudly informed its peons they set a new record for hours
worked recently – putting in 8.5 million more hours than the previous quarter.
And according to a forthcoming survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development, 26 per cent of workers claim (emphasis on ‘claim’, of course)
they work more than 48 hours a week, compared with 10 per cent in 1998.
Most businesses have scrupulously ignored the regulations – without much
interest from officialdom. And since 2001, the Health and Safety Executive, the
body principally charged with policing working time, has issued just 22
enforcement notices and only made two prosecutions.
Meanwhile, infringements to working time laws have yet to make much of a
dent on the tribunal system. In 2002-2003, there were 1,403 claims, of which
tribunals eventually agreed with just 106.
And where ignorance fails, there is always the next best thing: the opt-out.
Employers love the opt-out as much as a means of minimising hassle – all
those nitpicking calculations about 17-week reference periods and equivalent
compensatory rest – as a way of grinding the hours out of the workforce.
Not having made much difference, however, is not quite the same as saying
they might just as well have not existed.
The regulations contain many fine things. As a symbolic recognition of the
problem of long hours, with all their associated health risks and social
destructiveness, the regulations mark a real turning point.
With hindsight, it seems scandalous that there was no right to paid holidays
before they were introduced (three million workers were expected to benefit in
1998). Moreover, the requirement that employers organise work in accord with
"the general principle of adapting work to the worker", as the
working time directive puts it, still sounds fresh and novel.
Yet the story so far of regulating UK working time is one of the limitations
of legislation in trying to drag a culture in one direction, when multiple
pressures are pulling it in another.
The British way with long hours is among the most widely known facts of
working life. And yet it remains the hardest to explain.
The reasons are complex, heterodox and highly diverse among different
groups. As soon as you start to think through them, it becomes perfectly clear
that tackling the way a society uses time through the clumsy instrument of the
law is a profoundly tricky enterprise.
Probably the biggest single cause is the great British tradition of low pay.
To make a decent living, many workers have to put in long hours, preferably
with overtime, and sometimes supplemented with a second job or self-employment
on top. Despite falls in paid overtime, about a quarter of the workforce still
receive it. And those consistently putting in the longest week are plant and
machine operatives, and workers in transport and distribution.
Yet for others, economics is only tangentially related to the time they
spend working. For professionals and managers, it is workload and work
intensity, blended with the mysterious cocktail of emotions that breed in
offices, that best explain the hours: the popularity of teamwork imports a
‘don’t-let-the-side-down’ diligence; guilt travels fast in open-plan spaces; an
inked-out schedule brings kudos; the desire to belong propels employees towards
replicating the template of long hours. Such subtle promptings are far more
effective than employers forcing people to sign an opt-out.
Then, there is a further tribe of workers concentrated in the self-styled
knowledge industries, who put in long hours because a rigid distinction between
work and life makes no sense to them. Is thinking about work, work? Is the
post-work schmoozing of contacts work? What about background reading? Or the
sending of a quick e-mail? Technology has made it hard to know quite where work
ends and life begins.
A leaky border is a welcome development for employers, but the point here is
that employers are not solely responsible for the culture of long hours.
These are perhaps singularly British explanations – the ones stemming from
our history of resisting the regulation of working time and the Atlanticist
leanings of our culture (the UK work ethic is still some way short of US
But there are, of course, many more universal factors involved. There is a
sizable portion of workers – statistics will never really ascertain how many –
for whom work is a kind of sanctuary. This category encompasses the lucky few
who find in their work some expression of their personality; after all,
research into the psychological contract has found a striking correlation
between people who work the longest hours and those who are most satisfied.
Yet it must also take into account those who treat work as a refuge from the
bedlam of family life. Compared with minding children, work is fairly
stress-free. At least its rhythms bring some psychological order to the day.
Suffice to say, then, that the British habit of long hours is a deep-rooted,
multi-stranded affair that defies easy explanation. Now – blocking out all
thoughts of reforming pay structures, or obliging employers to monitor
workloads, or campaigning for workers to work contract hours – just imagine
passing a law restricting working hours. What an ambition.