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Who gets away with an eight-hour day any more? HESTER LACEY on long-hours culture - and how to avoid it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Working a regular eight-hour day is an unimaginable luxury to most professional people. Getting in at nine and leaving at five harks back to a golden age before the ugly spectre of "presenteeism" cast its shadow over employees' lives. Virtually the only way to guarantee a stint of no more than eight hours now is to work where you clock in and clock out.

Those who have managed to limit the hours they work to what would, 20 years ago, have been the average are reluctant to identify themselves. Some even resort to subterfuge. "I can quite easily achieve my work within a normal day, but I don't like to draw attention to it," says one civil servant. "I get resentful looks from my colleagues when I'm getting ready to leave at five o'clock. I've taken to ostentatiously packing files or paperwork and taking them home. People assume that I'm putting in a couple of extra hours in the evening."

A sympathetic boss can also help. Legal secretary Susan Cooper says: "Even when the lawyers I work for are staying late, they see that I am out of the office before six as they know I have two children. Other secretaries in the office aren't treated with the same consideration: you can hear the groans go round when one of the bosses dumps an hour's worth of typing on someone's desk at half past five."

Just an hour's extra work, however, would seem like heaven to some. "In my contract it says that I work from nine until half past five, with extra hours as necessary," says Mark, who works in PR as an account manager. "That makes it sound as though the extra hours are exceptional. In fact my job would be enough not only for me but for someone else part-time. I am expected to get in early and stay late. The idea of an eight-hour day makes me laugh. Or it would if it didn't make me want to cry."

Mark says he has thought about going freelance in order to change the way he works, but becoming self-employed is no guarantee of being able to organise more sensible hours. Chris Leeks recently started up his own business, Rocfish Resources, a recruitment management company based in Bristol. It is partly, he says, the nature of his work that it simply doesn't fit into a nine-to-five framework. "If you are trying to talk to people about a new job, you can't do it while they are sitting next to their boss," he points out. "You have to be available in the evenings." And, he says, there is a prevailing work-hard ethos that is hard to ignore. "Recruitment is a macho industry, and if you're not there late people assume you aren't committed." He insists on stopping work at half past five to spend time with his one-year-old daughter Maggie, but he picks up the phone again at seven in the evening.

Professor Cary Cooper, occupational psychologist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, is the author of the annual "Quality of Working Life" survey for the Institute of Management. The most recent survey found that 77 per cent of managers in Britain work more than their contracted hours every week, and that this is having a damaging effect on their health, relationships, productivity and quality of life. Calling Prof Cooper at four one afternoon last week elicited the cheerful response that he had left the office; when he rang back later, he explained that he had headed off to play tennis. "I adhere to a 40 or 45 hour week," he explained. "I do my job, I get through my work. Tomorrow I shall have to put in a long day, but I don't begrudge that - it's fine. It is prolonged and constant long hours that do the damage."

Professor Cooper is a spirited critic of the long-hours culture. These days, he says, you are only likely to work an eight-hour day if you are in a job that involves shift work or where there is a strong union. "But I don't know anybody who is a manager, teacher, social worker, probation officer, who works nine to five. It's getting crazy." He says that, while bosses equate long hours with efficiency, there is no evidence to support this. "In fact there is plenty of evidence that long hours make you ill."

There are, he says, steps that can be taken. One is to accept that the in-tray will never be empty. "There will always be things to do. You have to make rules that on certain days you will go home early, and adhere to them." Prioritising work at the beginning of the day and starting with essential tasks also helps, he says. "And I think it is time to name and shame employers. Be a good employee by all means, show commitment when necessary, but when demands are OTT, people have to begin saying openly that they have a life."

Personal development coach Mo Shapiro agrees that communication is important. "People need to start talking to each other about the ethos of the company and about looking for realistic expectations to do a decent job and still have time to be a human being." She concedes, in a workaholic atmosphere the response might well be "if you want to be a human being then find another job".

She believes that senior staff have a duty to set an example. "I was recently working in a firm of solicitors where the senior guys thought nothing of starting at 7.30am. What kind of message is that to send to its staff?" And, she says, there is no shame in being able to keep to sensible hours - in fact, quite the reverse. "Some people might be in at 7.30am but in fact be doing very little. Others work really hard from nine to five and achieve the same." Her own schedule is unpredictable. "Sometimes I do work crazy hours but then I take a couple of days off."

So, with a combination of luck, time management and subterfuge, it may still be possible to achieve the late lamented eight-hour working day. As a last resort there are still the old tricks: leave your jacket on the back of your chair and your computer switched on, even after you have left the building.

THE SHORT DAY

Stephanie Pugh, 34, runs a language tuition company. She does some teaching and employs tutors to take the other classes.

I used to work much longer hours, but my goal was always to have the company run itself. I still get up at 6am to check the financial wire news - I buy and sell shares. Then I spend the morning pottering about at home, with my computer screen within view to keep an eye on what's happening. I don't leave home until 11am, and from 12.30pm to 2pm I teach Japanese. I'm straight back home by 3pm. I go to the gym most afternoons - it's great to be able to go when it's not crowded.

Sometimes I'll do some private tutoring in the evenings for about an hour and a half. Admin and letters take about half a day a month. There's more to life than working 15 hours a day. You have to be aware of opportunities and grab them.

Stechan Lingua (tel: 0181 853 3162).

THE LONG DAY

John Jarvis, 32, runs a business constructing and renovating traditional wooden sash windows. He lives in Southend, Essex, where he has a workshop, but much of his business is in London.

Even when I'm working at home I start at 8am. I go to the timber yard and the glass merchant and bring back what I need. Then I'm in the workshop all day, making frames. I take half an hour for lunch, and I finish at about six, but then I work on correspondence, paperwork and the accounts and make phone calls, fixing appointments for quotations or to get fittings done. When I go to London - about two days a week - I leave home at 6am and it's quite normal to work through until the evening, I can't leave a window unfinished. It's a lovely job but it's hard work - people think that if you're self-employed you can suit yourself but that's not true. You have to remember to force yourself to stop.

I could work seven days a week easily, but I make a real effort not to do that.

Sash Windows by John Jarvis (tel: 01702 603836).

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