You are at your desk by 8am. You skip lunch and leave late. But are you actually getting any work done?
restructuring, downsizing, de-layering: it's all taking its toll. Job insecurity is stressful in itself, but the knock-on effect is that people are working longer and longer hours, often in an attempt to prove how indispensable they are. Within the last few weeks, organisations as diverse as the Department of Employment, the Trades Union Congress, the Institute of Management, the recruitment company Austin Knight, and the charity Parents at Work have all issued reports or surveys which show that, as a nation, we are now working longer and harder than ever. And all agree the long working day is not necessarily a productive one.

The new British industrial disease is not absenteeism, but its opposite, "presenteeism". Employees, paralysed by fear, get in early, work through lunch, stay at their desks well into the evening and cut holidays short. Most report that they do this because of the pressure to perform, to manage a workload which is heavier than ever before.

The problem is that the longer you work, the less efficiently you work: despite appearances, productivity falls as the day lengthens. Furthermore, a culture of overwork develops, putting pressure on everybody to be seen lingering at their workstations, regardless of workload.

"I've heard stories," says Angela Baron, a policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development, "of people staying all hours simply because they want to be seen to be committed, and that means no leaving before the boss."

Presenteeism is a new phenomenon: only 20 years ago Britain was regarded as the lazy man of Europe. Unemployment was low and unions were strong. This was the era of power cuts and three-day weeks. Then came the Eighties: not so much a decade of diligent labour as of easy money and the fast buck. You worked hard, but you played harder - until the bubble burst. By the turn of the Nineties, work, we were told, was out of fashion: this would be the decade when people would drop out of the rat-race and "find themselves" by embracing a New Age anti-work ethic. But it didn't turn out quite like that.

"Job insecurity," says Hilary Benn, head of research at the white-collar union MSF, "has hit the middle classes and they don't like it; it's not so much the feel-bad factor, it's the feel-ghastly factor."

Feeling ghastly, and performing badly. "What is clear," says Parents at Work, "is that work performance suffers as a result of working long hours - 45 per cent [of the people surveyed] feel this to be the case and over half consider that they have less 'thinking time' than they did five years ago." Anne Riley, chief executive of Austin Knight UK, agrees: "People's motivation and performance go down with excessive hours. People are getting the job done, but don't have enough time to think, plan and be creative." In the long term, people may burn out altogether, leaving a company with high staff turnover, low morale and increasing absenteeism through stress-related illness.

The effects are clawing their way into private lives. Lucy Daniels, director of Parents at Work, says that "young people say they don't even have time to have a relationship, let alone have children and start a family."

Edward, 29, is a merchant banker. He is at his desk by 6am, and remains there until 9pm. He has a social life on one night a week, Saturday. He finds it impossible, though, to have a relationship. "No one puts up with you for long," he says, "because they never see you. I am giving my life up for work, that's what I'm doing." Edward freely admits that if he were less exhausted he would not have to work such long hours, but staying late, which began as a response to pressure, has become a habit.

For a working mother like Alice, who works for a large computer company, the pressure is on to work far more than her contracted 37.5 hours. "If you want to get on, to get a good assessment, then you are expected to put in extra hours."

For Adrian, a clerk in an investment bank, it is a case of having to "show willing to do all the overtime required, because if you don't, there is someone else who will".

In the face of peer pressure, what can one do? One answer is the individualistic response: just say no. This has worked for Folake Segun, office manager for a small consultancy. "I made it clear from the start that I cannot stay. And I pass this down to other staff: please do your working during standard office hours; and before you stay late ask yourself, 'Can it wait until tomorrow?"

She argues: "If your output is good during normal hours and you meet your targets, then people can't say, 'Hey, you wimp. You're leaving at five'."

Not everyone will feel confident enough to adopt this approach: the extent to which an employee can make a stand against long hours is determined by how secure he or she feels in the job.

So, another answer to the problem takes a more collectivist approach. The shining example of recent years is the engineering unions' campaign to reduce the working week from 39 to 37 hours; their eventual target is a 35-hour week. What engineering companies found, by co-operating with the campaign, was that productivity gains could be offset against the reduced working hours; and workers exchanged pay rises for shorter hours. Everyone was happy.

A third way forward is through public campaigning and lobbying. The model for this strategy is, naturally, Parents at Work, which launched its Long Hours Campaign in September. This will culminate on 21 June next year (the longest day) with a national "Go home on time day".

According to Anne Riley, employers are starting to think about the problem in any case. "Employers do see it as a problem too; 90 per cent saw it as something they had to address in our survey."

And there are enlightened managements around. Midland Bank, for example, runs an internal helpline for employees to report problems, particularly stress.

For the time being, though, progress is bound to be patchy. Until recovery takes root and people stop feeling ghastly, it's going to be a hard day's night.

JUDITH'S 8-HOUR DAY

8.45am Arrive at the office. The nanny comes at eight, so I'm always in before nine. I like to hit the ground running and I find that first hour of work invaluable for reading documents and getting some correspondence out of the way - before the phones start going.

9.45am I'll take about a quarter of an hour to run through my post and decide what to prioritise for immediate action.

10am I'll generally spend the next hour or so considering responses and dictating letters. I rely on my secretary to screen calls heavily, especially in the morning. I'm always aware of the time that I'm devoting to each task, because at the end of the day I need to account for the time spent on each client's busness and charge for it. Wasted time is time you can't bill for. I just can't afford any slack.

11am Once I've got the bulk of that out of the way, I'll use the rest of the morning to make my own calls. Good working relationships with colleagues and clients depend on a degree of friendliness, but I am conscious of being business-like and brisk.

1pm I might go out myself, although sometimes my secretary will bring me a sandwich if I'm trying to work through. But I'd rather get out myself, just to stretch my legs. I rarely take more than half an hour.

1.45pm If at all possible I will have scheduled meetings and appointments for the afternoon. I prefer this, because if a meeting does run over, then I'm not getting so anxious about it because there are things I have to get off my desk.

3.30pm-4pm Very often I'll have at least one other appointment in the afternoon. I try to make sure that I'm through by about 4.30pm, but you have to bear in mind that clients in particular value the face-to-face meeting, and you can't rush people unduly.

4.30pm I try to reserve this last half-hour to make any calls about matters which have cropped up during the afternoon and need an immediate response. There's always something unforeseen.

5pm The last things I do are check the following day's diary with my secretary and then do the day's billing (which I've been keeping a running note of.)

5.15pm I absolutely have to leave by quarter past five to make sure I pick up the kids from the child minder by six. Very occasionally, if I'm working to a major deadline, I'll arrange for my husband to do this so that I can work late.

But, frankly, I feel I've done a good day's work by now and I'd rather see my children.

MARK'S 11-HOUR DAY

9.45am I suppose the official working day for me is 9.30am to 5.30pm, but I'm not the greatest morning person, so if I'm honest it's usually more like quarter to ten by the time I'm actually through the door. I like easing myself into the day, so I'll get a cup of coffee and spend 10 minutes reading the paper - the headlines, the editorial page, the sport; and I glance at the law reports, too.

10.15am Sometimes I'm already getting calls by now, but if I'm not interrupted, then I'll go through all my correspondence for that morning. I tend just to work steadily thorugh, making calls and composing letters as I go. It may not be the most efficient way of dealing with it, but at least I know it's all out of the way - provided there's not too much extra in the second post.

11am If I have a morning appointment, then this is when it would be. You always think a meeting should take just half an hour, but by the time you've exchanged small talk and then tackled the business, it's often over an hour. I don't mind - I enjoy the contact with clients.

12-12.30pm I'll probably need the time before lunch to clear up the stuff left over from the morning post; otherwise I'll make some calls.

1pm I like to take a proper break; I play squash with a friend a couple of times a week (which means taking more than an hour). Otherwise, I might meet a friend for a quick bite or do some shopping (just errands). In that case I'm back by two.

2pm It's not worth calling anyone for a while, because people take different lunch-hours, so I'll usually use this time to read through the files of the clients I'm due to meet that afternoon.

2.30pm I'll make some of the calls that I need to. I try to keep chat to a minimum, but some of the people you deal with on a day-to-day basis end up being friends too, so you're bound to talk about things outside work: I think part of work is about relationships.

3.30pm Probably a meeting around this time, maybe an hour, sometimes longer. Occasionally they'll be another one back-to-back (which at least means the first one can't run over).

5.30pm The main switchboard closes, but people know they can still get me, so I tend to be distracted with phone calls. The phone is the bane of legal life; it must have been much easier when everyone just wrote to each other - much more civilised. The fax is a menace: it imposes shorter deadlines all the time: people expect a reply today.

6.30pm It's getting quieter by now, so this is the time when in some ways I get most done. There's time to think.

8.30pm I'm thinking about packing up and going home by now; sometimes I'll make a couple of quick personal calls, though - by the time I get home I know I won't have the energy.

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