Secretarial: `Can you work late again?'

If asked to work overtime, do you just accept it, or say no?
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"YOU COULDN'T stay on an extra hour tonight, could you, so we can finish this project?" That's how it starts. Before you know it, you're working an extra hour every night, and then two hours and so on. Nobody else ever leaves the office at 5pm, so you didn't either.

National data shows that British employees now work the longest hours in Europe, with a staggering 60 per cent working more than 10 hours over and above their contracted hours. For secretarial staff, this long-hours culture is a particularly sensitive issue because if the manager is working late, the chances are that you'll also be expected to. Indeed, research by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) overwhelmingly shows that managers constitute the group working the longest hours of all and that many require administrative support while doing so. So what's the solution?

According to David Lapido, co-author of a new report by the Cambridge University Centre for Business Research on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the first thing employees should do is ask themselves whether there's a correlation between working overtime and job insecurity. "People are often led to believe that they are working long hours out of choice because there is no obvious pressure involved," he says. Indeed, a study by IPD found many employees saying they work long hours because they enjoy their jobs. "However, the reality may be that employees realise if they don't work long hours, they risk their chances of promotion and of being seen as a committed worker.'

The second step is to recognise the results of this, he says. "It might be efficient to work long hours in the short term, but it is not sustainable to do so in the longer term."

It is for this reason that Professor Cary Cooper, author of Balancing Your Career, Family and Life (pounds 8.99 Kogan Page), suggests discussing this with the boss at the earliest stage possible. "That doesn't mean secretaries should refuse to work a minute over 4.30pm. That is unrealistic. Rather, it's when secretaries are asked or expected to stay late regularly and for non-urgent work that they should feel entitled to question it."

According to Jenny Kodz, author of the report by the Institute for Employment Studies, entitled Breaking the Long Hours Culture, "many secretarial staff work late due to heavier workloads, fewer staff and tighter budgets".

In this instance, says Dr Alexander Wedderburg, professor of occupational psychology at Heriot-Watt University, the answer is assertiveness. "Contrary to popular opinion, telling employers you can't get the work done in the hours you are contracted to do won't necessarily lead to you being penalised. Provided you show commitment by doing the job well, working speedily, working through the odd lunch hour and staying late once in a while, any reasonable boss will see that you have a point and that they will be hard-pushed to find a better replacement."

If all else fails, you can always refer to the Working Time Directive which became law in October last year. The main requirement of this legislation is a maximum working week of 48 hours. Not all situations, of course, are easily rectified and there may be times when you need to cut your losses and get a new job. The public sector tends to be family-friendly, says Cooper, and it is also worth finding out how strong a union is in any company you are thinking of working for. "Stay away from posts in the City, IT, hospitality and retail if you don't thrive off pressure and long hours,"adds Nick Isles of IPD. "Workers here tend to pride themselves on it."

But even in these sectors, companies are beginning to address the issue of overtime in an attempt to reduce staff turnover, stress among employees and decreasing productivity in the long-run.