Go on, leave. They'll survive without you

Today is Go Home on Time Day. So why don't you break a great British tradition and tear yourself away from your desk before 6pm? By Anne Treneman

Today is the longest day of the year - 16 hours and 39 minutes long in fact - but millions of Britons will tell you that every working day is the longest for them. If you think that's only a moan, think again, because we do work the longest hours in Europe.

In France and Germany, or in any other EU country, most people would never be caught slaving away for more than eight hours a day. In Britain, most work at least 40 hours, and 28 per cent of men admit to working 48 or more. If you don't think that sounds so bad, compare it with Belgium (4 per cent) or the Netherlands (1.6 per cent). The closest country is Ireland, with 13 per cent of men admitting to such a working week.

But does longer mean better? Lucy Daniels, of the campaign group Parents at Work, barely draws breath before answering: "It leads to lower productivity and an increase in accident rates. Such stress leads to ill health. Billions of pounds are spent on sick leave and long hours contribute to stress."

Having heard her answer, she wants people to act. Today, 21 June, is Go Home on Time Day, and Ms Daniels and her organisation want to see office doors swinging shut at 5.30pm. "We're not going to change the world, but if we can just put the brakes on and stop for one day," she says.

"I've come across it many times - the long hours' culture," says Angela Jay, stress analyst for PPP Healthcare, the sponsor of Go Home day. "Everybody should go home at 5.30 or 6pm and yet no one moves until seven.There's a lot of insecurity and there seems to be a malaise, almost a creeping paralysis, where nobody goes home. In the past 10 years alone, working hours have gone up by two a week."

So will she go home on time today? Absolutely. But she admits that it's not always been so easy to take her jacket off the back of the chair. If you are unhappy with your long hours, Jay suggests discussing it with your boss and coming up with a reasonable compromise, but points out that sometimes a career change is the only realistic way.

Others simply give up or become self-employed. Some find a way to stay, and it would be naive to say that money doesn't make a difference, both in personal satisfaction and in childcare choices. It is clear also that flexible hours are much easier if your company has a progressive attitude.

If yours doesn't and you can't face talking to your boss, then you might consider living a lie. Drape your coat permanently on the back of the chair, leave a Post-it note on your screen saying "back in 10 minutes" and have loud phone conversations complaining about how you have to work late - again. After all, if you're British, it's bound to be true.

THE FLEXIBLE PROFESSIONAL

Sally Hornsby, 37, bills for every quarter hour she works as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand in Surrey, so she used to be well aware of exactly how much more time than her regular two days she was called upon to do.

Such demands meant a ring round to find childcare and the disappointment of not spending time with her children or doing her community work.

About two years ago, however, Coopers & Lybrand introduced a scheme that changed her life.

"The firm brought in this annual hours concept. I'm paid a regularly monthly amount that amounts to two and a half days a week, but it's worked out over a year."

Now she feels as if she's in control. "I work more hours when it's required and do less when it's not."

In addition, she points out, the slow time often coincides with her children's summer holidays.

"If this scheme didn't exist," she adds, "I would be asking myself if it was worth it."

THE SPOUSE

Martin Singleton, a 40-year-old maths and music teacher at Orley Farm School in Harrow, north London, will be leaving work on time today, as he does pretty much every day. But his wife will not. Since they were married 13 years ago, she has worked as a self-employed solicitor and her hours regularly stretch until 9pm and beyond.

"If I work longer hours, I don't get any extra pay; but the harder my wife works, the more rewards she gets," says Mr Singleton. "The rewards make it worthwhile. Her salary is five or six times' mine.

"I love the company of my children and very much enjoy them. I love it when she's working late because I get to do it all my way. When I was a boy, time spent with my father was extra special. Our kids feel that when their mother comes in."

This is one case where the spouse seems to be happy with longer hours. "But if we did not share the rewards, then I would have a different attitude. I certainly would feel put upon. As it is, I only work for a hobby."

THE FATHER

Rodger O'Connell, 45, a consultant in management training, knows when he hasn't spent enough time with his three children. "I can tell by how I react to the kids. If I've been around, then things can be left half said. If not, then things need to be fully said. If they are having problems with their homework, say, then I would know it may be because of what happened yesterday. If I can't do that, then I'm not spending enough time with them."

Mr O'Connell is father to 10-year-old Katie and twin eight-year-old boys. He often takes a work break when they come home from school. After they go to bed, he might do some more work.

"If you talk to people that I deal with, they will say that I'm fairly passionate, maybe even evangelical, about work. It's very important to me. But so is my family, and it's trying to strike a balance between the two that's hard."

He is angry about how men are treated. "Lots of men are trying to hang on to their jobs, and they've been forced to put in all those hours. I don't want to be in yesterday's society. I don't need a Victorian steeple with a clock on it to tell me whether I've done a good day's work."

THE MOTHER

Loretta Vince was one of those people who did miss her daughter's school sports days - and concerts, and much more besides. As a full-time worker for a small charity to help the homeless, she handled finance and administration.

"We had good terms and conditions, but they were understaffed and underfunded. No one was standing over me beating me with a stick to work until 8pm, but I was the only person who did my job."

This meant that she regularly worked until 7.30pm or 8pm, and sometimes at weekends.

Her daughter, Isabelle, then 10 years old, went to an after-school club and then joined her in the office. Ms Vince told her daughter to dawdle on her way over, so she would arrive late.

"Then one day Isabelle went missing. After a search, she was found at a friend's. It really got me thinking, `What am I doing? I'm telling my child to walk the streets so she doesn't interfere with my work. This is a nonsense'."

When attempts to reduce her hours failed, she started to suffer classic signs of stress, such as chronic tiredness and interrupted sleeping patterns. The charity tried to use volunteers, but of course they had to be trained up, and several were unreliable.

"As my daughter got older," Ms Vince says, "I just decided it wasn't worth it. It's not that many more years until my daughter will be gone. I'd not really had the time for her and decided I had better spend a couple of years with her now."

She decided to start her own business and gave her notice. More than a year later, she finds herself without a job, much less a business, and on benefit. But she says she would make the same decision today. "Yes, life is better. I really get fed up with no money, but Isabelle would rather be without money than not have me around."

THE EMPLOYER

Today, Howard Davies will leave his office at the Bank of England at 5.30pm. As a working parent and a patron of Parents at Work, it would be too embarrassing to do anything else.

"Oh, I'll definitely be off on time on today. But the honest answer as to whether I do this all the time is no," says Mr Davies, 47, the Deputy Governor of the Bank. "I've got the sort of job in which you can't avoid evening work. But if I don't have a dinner, then I don't hang around."

On Wednesday, he was in Toronto; on Thursday, he was in Ottawa. Today, he will be back in Britain by breakfast time - and you can bet it won't be a working one. "I always decline breakfast meetings and I tell people why I'm declining: I think it is important to see my children in the morning - I don't see them enough."

Mr Davies and his wife have two sons - George, 11, and Archie, eight. He has always made a point of seeing them every morning and doing the school run. His advice to others who feel they want to re-examine their working hours is to be "fairly up front about it" and that "a bit of give and take is required".

"It's important to create a climate in which output is what's important and not just presence," he says.

The Bank of England has a working parents' forum and Mr Davies says that no one should fear missing school events such as sports days. "I've not seen that in too many files `goes to too many school sports days'. That doesn't get marked down."

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