Long hours? Work on it

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The Independent Online
THE RECENT arrival of the European Union Working Time Directive has thrown all kinds of organisations into disarray. Although few are keen to be seen as operating "sweatshops", the long hours culture is so rife in Britain that the regulation poses potential problems for most employers.

As a report just published by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) points out, a high proportion of UK employees regularly work more than 10 hours over and above their contracted hours. Accordingly, the report, entitled "Breaking the Long Hours Culture", says that the answer to the directive is not - as many organisations seem intent on doing - to find ways of getting around it. Instead, it calls on employers to tackle the factors behind the long hours culture.

Although every organisation has its workaholics, most employees do not work long hours because they want to. Rather, the problem is the modern workplace. Thanks to the armies of consultants and gurus who have convinced managers that their organisations are grossly inefficient, the average employee has to deal with ever larger workloads caused by customers who expect 24-hour service, greater competition, tighter budgets and fewer staff.

But, though it may be efficient to work long hours in the short term, there is a growing realisation that it is not sustainable over longer periods.

Jenny Kodz, IES research fellow and one of the report's authors, says: "Employers are now starting to recognise that persistent long hours result in diminishing returns to productivity and quality of work outputs, increased sickness absence, low morale and high staff turnover, and greater health and safety risks. "

Nor does it just affect existing employees. At a time when employers are supposedly concerned about recruiting the "best and brightest" from a not overly generous talent pool, it seems a little odd for them to look upon the working time directive as a hindrance to their competitiveness. Presenting long hours as the norm may work as a recruitment strategy for the likes of McKinsey & Co, the management consultancy, Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, or other places where there is the potential to gain huge rewards for such commitment. But there is growing evidence that it has little appeal for the modern graduate.

As Ms Kodz says, since long hours diminish family life and opportunities for community involvement, "employers presenting long hours as the expected norm may be unable to recruit those who take their outside responsibilities seriously."

Consequently, there is a strong case for employers to use the directive as a first step to dealing with the issue. Marie Strebler, the report's co-author, adds: "Employers need to understand the problem; who within the organisation is working long hours and the reasons why they do so."

The few examples of employers successfully tackling long working hours demonstrate, says the IES, that effective remedial processes are aimed at changing working patterns through such means as annualised hours, revised scheduling, flexible working arrangements and job redesigns. They also involve changing both individual behaviour and company culture through training in time management and delegation, commitment to "go home on time" days and visibly different behaviour from top managers.

Indeed, the IES report puts great store by a commitment to and sponsorship of change at the top of organisations, and to managers leading by example.