Workers on the brink of breakdown as Britain becomes sweatshop of Europe

Britain's workforce is being driven to the brink of nervous breakdown, with employees working the longest hours in Europe, amid sinking morale and rising divorce rates.

The number of British workers putting in more than 50 hours a week has grown by a third according to European Commission figures, with 1 in 59 people working more than 70 hours. The average length of the British working week is calculated at 43.1 hours.

Since the recession, and the "downsizing" of industry, companies have fought for survival. And with bosses continuing to drive workers to the limit - fewer people doing more work on less secure contracts - there are increasing claims that Britain is the new sweatshop of Europe.

Managers themselves are also suffering, according to Professor Cary Cooper, head of occupational psychology at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, who claims Britain will face mass exhaustion if conditions are not improved.

He said: "We could withstand the Dunkirk effect, where people were all for working very hard to come out of the recession, to retain jobs and get businesses back. But in the long term people cannot cope.

"You get your economy going, but all the surveys point to the fact that people are extremely overloaded. If you are to sustain economic development you have to understand it's taking its toll, not only on the health of the workforce but its impact on family life. We also have the highest divorce rate in Europe."

The first worker to win compensation for work-related stress, a social services manager, was paid pounds 200,000 last year, after suffering a nervous breakdown following a fivefold increase in his caseload. John Walker described afterwards how overwhelmed he had become. He said: "Tiers of management had been taken out and the others were left to cope. I could do nothing for the people below me and nobody above me wanted to know. I knew I was making mistakes, but I couldn't do anything about it."

In Surrey, the Mother's Union claims the county has the highest divorce rate in Europe, more than 40 per cent, and blames the strain of commuting and long working hours among its high-achieving residents for the marriage breakdowns.

There are few areas of working life that have been unaffected. The first national 24-hour helpline for stressed doctors was set up earlier this year. The Police Convalescent Home continues to offer a sanctuary to overworked officers; and many low wage earners are holding down three jobs to make a proper living.

The professional classes are suffering too. Research earlier this year revealed lawyers to be so overworked they were considering quitting in droves. They described work as the equivalent of a prison sentence, and nine out of 10 said they were suffering an overload.

In a survey of 400 companies British workers emerged as having the lowest morale in Europe. While the Swiss, Dutch and Germans appeared relatively happy with their lot, the British were the most miserable, followed by the Italians.

Roger Maitland, managing director of Survey Research International, which published the findings, said: "Britain has obviously become much more of a pressure-cooker. Everyone has one and a half jobs or none at all, and at every level of the food chain there is significantly more pressure . . .

"In the short term we've become very efficient, and it's made us more competitive and the growth rate higher. What I'm arguing for is for Britain to sustain that growth on the back of satisfied employees. Human beings are like machines and they wear out if they are not looked after."