a well known fact that UK employees work the longest hours in the EU and the Government
is keen to redress the issue. Research confirms flexible hours lead to a more
productive workforce yet HR finds itself culpable in setting a bad example by
working ever longer hours. Phil Boucher reports
Picture the scene. You have been working all day, your in-box has been
defeated and in theory you’re free to go home any time you wish. Only, nobody
else is leaving – they’re all waiting for the HR director to walk out before
they make a move.
Does this sound horribly familiar? Unfortunately, it will to many. According
to the CIPD, the TUC and the Department of Trade and Industry, the UK has a
longer working week than anywhere else in Europe. The most recent survey of
full-time employees by the European Commission’s Statistical Office, Eurostat,
shows staff in the UK clocked up an average of 43.6 hours compared to their EU
counterparts of 40.3 overall.
The TUC’s About Time report also claims that 2.5m managerial or professional
employees currently work more than 48 hours a week – a figure that unavoidably
includes members of the HR profession. In a recent speech at the TUC’s
conference of the same name, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia
Hewitt outlined the Government’s determination to tackle this issue by setting
employers a five-year deadline to correct the situation (see box overleaf).
It is also a matter of concern to the CIPD whether the benefits of working
long hours are commensurate with the cost to people’s health, performance and output.
While it places HR in the vanguard of tackling the issue, the institute also
believes the profession has its own long-hours problems to address. Mike
Emmott, CIPD adviser on employee relations, says: "HR is part of the
management and therefore if there is a culture of long hours HR is likely to be
a part of that."
Inevitably HR is implicated in its failure to drive the debate on flexible
working. Unless it leads by example HR will fail for the simple reason that
people ask: "If HR isn’t doing it, then how can we?"
As Cary Cooper, Bupa professor of organisational psychology and health at
the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, (UMIST)
points out: "HR is a fundamental function in the organisation. And at the
moment it sends out the wrong signals. How can you on the one hand say ‘reduce
hours, introduce flexible working, aim for a better work-life balance, manage
your human resources properly and minimise stress’, when by your behaviour you
are conveying the absolute opposite? It undermines everything you are trying to
But before HR is able to tackle its own long-hours problem it has to
identify the reasons for them. Research by Roffey Park Institute suggests that
presenteeism plays a part in 60 per cent of all cases nationally. However, HR
is also likely to suffer from the excessive workloads that the About Time study
says accounts for half the long hours worked by professionals.
A glance through Personnel Today’s Head to Head section which quizzes HR
directors about their roles reveals, without exception, that HR directors
typically work 50-60 hour weeks. And of all the reasons given it is the
workload that’s most commonly cited.
John Marsh, head of personnel at the Prison Service is a typical example of
this. He admits to working a 55-hour week, but explains: "The reality is
that I am a senior manager and the hours I undertake are a combination of
workload, the fact that I am new to the area and am on a learning curve, and
most of all that I enjoy it – I would never do them otherwise."
There are other reasons. Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey
Park, believes HR suffers from a cultural desire to reward those who work long
hours. Many of the areas HR is involved in such as industrial relations and
cultural change programmes also lend themselves to long meetings and endless
reams of time-consuming paperwork.
As a result many HR professionals see long hours as part and parcel of their
job when in fact they are symptoms of bad practice. "It’s important that HR
focuses on ensuring it understands the reality of peer pressure within its own
departments, where people feel they will miss out career- wise if they do not
stay late," Holbeche says. "It’s a case of looking at the policies
and working more subtly to challenge the main practices that support long
But along with examining the long-hours culture within its ranks, HR
professionals have to consider the impression they make. As it has set itself
up as a champion of flexible working arguably it has a duty to achieve best
practice on long hours. The difficulty is deciding how to achieve it.
Theo Blackwell, policy specialist at the Industrial Society, believes HR has
to lead by example and demonstrate that flexible working is the key to solving
the long-hours problem. "If HR departments see the need for flexible
working but cannot get this message across, then they can hardly expect other
departments to take the lead," he says. "HR has to drive the debate
by pursuing the idea of flexible working and showing the business benefits
through its own example."
The good news for HR is that there are plenty of examples from which to take
a lead. Microsoft has designated a number of ‘HR role models’ within its HR
team, for instance, who make sure the rest of the function do not work too many
hours. Their job is to lead by example and demonstrate the benefits of flexible
working to the rest of the company.
Jill Crowther, HR manager for Microsoft, says: "Our HR role models
ensure the rest of HR team members make time to pursue their outside interests.
We follow the example of the head of HR, Steve Harvey who is a real believer in
the business benefits of a rounded lifestyle."
Microsoft’s company policy helps enforce this as it is designed to create an
environment where people have freedom over their day. Much of this hinges on an
annual employee survey which notes both the hours people are working and how
satisfied they are with undertaking them.
The result is an enlightened working environment that tries to match individual
and corporate needs. In the US, Microsoft even encourages its programmers to
work shorter hours by pledging money to charity for every day they leave work
on time. Whether or not this would work in every company is contestable but the
principles of leading by example and considering the benefits of shorter hours
As Bupa’s Professor Cooper, of UMIST, says: "It is about setting an
example and then communicating this to the rest of the organisation."
A flexible working programme run by British Telecom’s HR team has enabled
5,000 employees to work from home and shaved £220m off real estate costs. And
the starting point for BT was an HR department which realised the long-hours
culture could only be challenged by taking the wider view.
Since then BT’s HR department has worked closely with line managers and
futurologists to focus on other areas of the business that can be shifted from
the current obsession with long hours. HR takes a lead role in the development
of flexible working practices as well as in the way BT conducts its business.
Caroline Waters, director of employment policy at BT, says: "We shouldn’t
just be tackling the long-hours culture. We should be changing the whole
Toy manufacturer Mattel has also enjoyed a dramatic improvement in staff
motivation and morale since it introduced a ‘summer hours’ package more than a
year ago. This enables staff to leave work at midday on Fridays and encourages
them to take time off to explore outside interests.
The idea is to focus on how individual happiness relates to the bottom line.
Dr Aysen Broadfield, European HR director of Mattel, says: "HR’s role is
to identify issues relating to motivation, productive or unproductive stress
and the productivity of individuals. Since the summer hours were introduced we
have noticed people react more constructively to work demands, workloads and
By taking steps like these HR can drive the debate on flexible working.
Unless it leads by example, how can HR credibly enforce the message?
Steps to achieve a work-life balance
The Government has announced a raft of legislation aimed at
curbing the long-hours culture. This includes
– The Working Time Directive is to be
extended in the next 18 months, to include the transport sector, offshore
workers and junior doctors. Legislation on 16 and 17-year-olds will be
tightened. Employees will also get four weeks paid holiday a year.
– Statutory maternity pay will
increase by up to £100 a week from April. Maternity leave will also be
available for up to a year and fathers will be entitled to two weeks paid
paternity leave for the first time.
– Employers will also have to
consider a parental request for flexible working from next year and either
agree new arrangements, or provide hard business reasons for why they cannot be
put in place.
– Elsewhere, the Government is
planning to reform working time in the public sector by developing codes of
best practice across departments. A working party has already been set up in the
DTI and the Cabinet Office is engaged in sharing these ideas around Whitehall.
– Private-sector employers are being
encouraged to draft similar programmes in co-operation with union
representatives, who themselves are being pushed to negotiate individual
workplace agreements on working time.
– To help business come to terms with
these changes and advise them on the whole issue of challenging the long-hours
culture, the DTI has introduced two guides from the DTI’s Work-life Balance
Campaign: ‘Work-Life Balance: The Business Case’; and ‘Work-Life Balance: The
– These provide case studies of employers which have
successfully managed to curb their workers’ hours along with advice on how to
challenge the situation.
– A study programme has been set up
to investigate the impact of shorter hours on productivity and the success of
the Working Time Directive. This will investigate best practice and successful
innovation in the Netherlands, France and the US to see which practices can be
transferred to the UK.
For information call the work-life
balance campaign on 0870 1502 500, or contact the DTI on 020 7215 5000 (www.dti.gov.uk)