Bosses begin to see the light on long hours

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AT LAST there are some signs that employers have recognised that long working hours injure staff and their own self-interests. Many studies show that overwork damages employee health, affects personal relationships, and cuts productivity. But until now employers have been happy to de-layer and downsize in the name of cost-cutting efficiency, ignoring the negative effects of piling more and more work on to the survivors and so reducing individual and corporate effectiveness.

Almost a third of full-time UK employees work over 46 hours a week, more than in any other EU country, according to Eurostat. In Spring 1997 the UK Labour Force Survey showed that 27 per cent of full-time employees worked more than the 48 hours a week allowed by the Working Time Directive. A survey of 1,269 white-collar workers by Austin Knight in conjunction with Parents at Work showed that although three-quarters had contractual hours of between 35 and 37.5 hours a week, two- thirds worked on average 40 or more hours and a quarter more than 50 hours. The surveys also show that managers and professionals tend to work the longest hours.

Several surveys by the Institute of Management (IM) and others show that most people no longer feel they have a reasonable balance between home and work. However this year's report, The Quality of Working Life, a five- year study tracking trends in working life by the IM and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, found that managers worked fewer hours in the last year. The study found that the proportion of managers working over 40 hours a week fell from 82 to 78 per cent, and those working more than 50 hours from 38 to 34 per cent. There were marked falls in those working weekends and those regularly working in the evening.

Is this fall in hours a statistical blip, the result of less work with the onset of recession, or a change of heart? A study by the Institute for Employment Studies may have the answer. In Breaking the Long Hours Culture, it says three factors have highlighted the issue. The EC's WorkingTime Directive brought working hours into focus. More women now work, so there are greater demands for family-friendly policies. And there are more social concerns about the impact of long working hours on family life. The IES says "some organisations, but relatively few, have begun to question the effectiveness of long working hours".

The institute identifies various negative consequences of working long hours: increased sickness absence, low morale and high turnover; lower productivity and quality of work outputs; greater health and safety risks; adverse impacts on family and social life and community activities; and reduced employment opportunities for those unable or unwilling to work long hours.

The Working Time Directive will provide protection for employees from working excessive hours. By raising the issue, it may change attitudes. But the organisation points out that some concern over its likely impact has been raised because it is often possible to make special agreements on longer working hours. Some rogue employers have already "let it be known" that staff unwilling to sign special agreements on longer working hours will head redundancy lists. The institute looked at steps taken by employers to reduce working hours. But it said: "We have been able to find relatively few examples where employers have successfully tackled a long hours culture."

The IES was told by those employers who are tackling the issue that long hours and workload had come up in staff opinion surveys, and appeared to affect morale. Asda noted the impact of long working hours on sickness absence and staff turnover.

The measures introduced are of two main types: changing work patterns and changing individual behaviour and company culture. Changing work patterns includes such measures as annualised hours, altering rotas and shift patterns, flexible working arrangements, and new working practices. At the personal and cultural level, measures include raising awareness, providing training in time management and managers setting an example by reducing their working hours, and the introduction of "go home on time" days.

The IES says key aspects of successful interventions include consulting and involving staff to identify causes and generate solutions. Solutions must tackle the underlying issues, there must be commitment from the top, and managers must lead by example. Long hours damage the health, motivation, creativity and personal relationships of employees. In turn this damages the productivity of organisations, generates huge absenteeism and turnover costs, and so harms profitability. We should recognise that we can no longer afford a long-hours culture.