Britain's burnt-out workers could benefit from some French lessons

Moralising Tories sentimentalise family life, but oppose any moves that would make spending time with your family possible
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, scattered newspaper stories just beg for somebody to join the dots. A marketing group this week has picked up on a phenomenon that I've seen among plenty of my friends: exhausted twenty-something professionals are working crazy, unliveable hours and eventually quitting altogether - "protiring" - in favour of less stressful jobs.

Sometimes, scattered newspaper stories just beg for somebody to join the dots. A marketing group this week has picked up on a phenomenon that I've seen among plenty of my friends: exhausted twenty-something professionals are working crazy, unliveable hours and eventually quitting altogether - "protiring" - in favour of less stressful jobs.

A world away in the public's perception, the Trades Union Congress is meeting in Brighton, disgruntled and disillusioned. Gordon Brown has rightly boasted of some real achievements for Labour's traditional allies, but the Government has made disappointingly little progress towards the TUC's aim of "humanising the British workplace". For every person who "protires", there are 20 who keep on driving themselves to misery. TUC polling has found that 55 per cent of British workers say that workplace stress "makes them bad-tempered and irritable at home", and 32 per cent are suffering sleepless nights.

We live in a burnt-out country. At seven o'clock most evenings, Tube carriages are stuffed full of exhausted people falling asleep, sagging against the walls, or frantically scrabbling away at work papers looking like they want to scream. In the mornings, it's nearly as bad. A few months ago I met up with an old friend who, after university, went to work in the City. I hadn't seen her in the two years since graduation, and the effect of a relentless, joyless work schedule was pretty obvious: her eyes were puffy, and all her joie de vivre seemed to have been siphoned away.

She split up with her boyfriend of three years not long after she started working, and said, "I just don't have time for a relationship now. I've met a few blokes who seemed up for it, but it didn't work because we could never be in the same place at the same time. There was one in particular I really liked, but on the few occasions we did manage to meet up, we were both so knackered that we just sat there like pensioners in front on the TV and dozed off." Now she unsuccessfully tries to cram the pleasures of life - eating, seeing friends, sex - into the brief moments she has to herself, and "most of the time, none of them seem very satisfying."

This American hyper-work culture is beating its way into every aspect of our lives, not least people's ability to spend time with their kids. I cannot understand all those moralising Tories who sentimentalise family life at every turn, but then oppose any moves, such as a maximum working week, that would make spending time with your family possible. It's one of the strange ironies of British life that right-wing newspapers require their journalists to write endless hymns to The Family as they sit long into the night in a stuffy office while their kids are cared for by paid strangers.

We need to make markets work for people, not the other way round. We don't have to look far for a model of how to make this possible: just take a trip across the Channel. In 1998, France introduced a 35-hour maximum working week for around half of its workers (the other half were in exempted jobs, like doctors, or working for businesses that employ fewer than 20 people, which are also exempt).

The transformation in quality of life was stunning. Gyms, voluntary organisations, swimming pools and community organisations saw their memberships soar. Weekend breaks became a boom market. Parents began to take Wednesdays off to spend with their children (French schools close on Wednesday afternoons). The new hours off can be interpreted flexibly: many workers just chose to knock an hour or two off of each working day. An amazing 80 per cent of the beneficiaries say that the changes have been "positive" or "very positive" for them.

The right-wingers who howled that this would devastate the French economy were left looking pretty foolish when 285,000 jobs were created and unemployment fell from 12.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent within three years. Productivity rates have improved drastically. Workers who are not miserable and depressed, surprise, surprise, work better and harder when they are at their desks. Yet again, neoliberal orthodoxies were shown to crumble in the face of a social democratic reality. Even the French conservatives who opposed the legislation when they were in opposition have not dismantled it now they are in government, because it is so popular. They have introduced a little more flexibility, but the 35-hour week is still the norm.

Yet when you talk about bringing this life-enhancing transformation to Britain, you are all too often greeted with hostility. "Why should the Government force people to go home after 35 hours? Why shouldn't I be free to stay at work as long as I want?", a colleague asks. Nobody will be forced to leave their desk by wicked French bureaucrats; it's just that you won't get paid for overtime. This is because your freedom to overwork has to be balanced against everybody else's freedom from employers who may coerce them to work unreasonable hours.

The British government, however, has mostly rejected the arguments for limiting work hours. True, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, is genuinely passionate about promoting work-life balance (not least because working mums find this hardest to achieve). The Government has made some steps in Hewitt's direction, but all its actions are based on the idea that business can be persuaded to do the right thing by showing them it is more productive in the long-term. Sometimes this works; but for too many workers, it doesn't.

Only mandatory rules will help everyone equally; but Tony Blair is fiercely opposed. He only signed the EU's Working Time Directive - which introduced the current legal 48-hour maximum working week to Britain - on the condition that Britain retained an opt-out where workers could voluntarily sign away this right. He is privately known to regard it as "the worst piece of legislation coming out of Brussels" during his time in Downing Street.

The current opt-out is up for renegotiation. Blair should listen to the private lobbying of Patricia Hewitt and seriously consider letting the opt-out die because, as the TUC explains, "We know of numerous cases where employers have unlawfully forced their employees to sign opt-out forms, often by threatening them with the sack if they do not. In practice, the opt-out means that many workers are denied their right not to work more than 48 hours a week." Indeed, he should go further than Hewitt and consider importing the French model.

The Prime Minister is lucky. His family live above the shop so he gets to see them fairly often, and he has a job he clearly loves. Most people do not have either of these blessings, and they deserve a family and private life too. Mr Blair doesn't need to look far for an example of how over-long work hours can ruin personal happiness: remember Alan Milburn? So many New Labour buzzwords could be crammed into a speech backing a limited working week, you'd think Blair would be beaming: productivity, family, efficiency, community... If only. Then the TUC conference would cheer a Labour Prime Minister so loud we'd hear the whoops in Westminster.