Leader: Work is a four-letter word

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The Independent Online
We are working more and more, to less and less effect. That is the underlying message of today's survey, carried out by a recruitment organisation, which shows that a quarter of white-collar workers put in more than 50 hours a week in the office. Few of them believe that either their careers or their work benefit, while almost everyone agrees that family life and personal relations suffer.

It is worth considering why this is happening and whether it can be stopped. At first sight the process seems to have an inexorable, lunatic logic of its own, like the growth of peacocks' tails, or the spread of ever more sophisticated word-processing software with which to write simple memos. In both these cases, ever- greater resources are poured into some largely futile activity, not because the benefits of success are large or even noticeable, but because the penalty for falling behind competitors is terrible. If Tench in marketing can put in 50-hour weeks, then Snooks in the central administrative unit had better stick around for 55 hours - providing, of course, that their superiors work a 60-hour week and thus are available to notice this zeal.

And, for the most part, their bosses will notice. It is striking that the hours worked by white-collar workers now increase as these workers rise through the organisation. This is a complete contrast to the former modus operandi in most large firms, where the disagreeable work was done at the bottom and as much of it as possible was extorted from the workers. On a global scale this still happens. But within Britain there is not so much of that kind of exploitation left.

The increasing globalisation and efficiency of the economy means that the jobs left in countries such as Britain are, for the most part, those which cannot be done by machines. The jobs that remain to be done by humans tend to demand flexibility of role and responsibility. Thus working hours are defined by the demands of the job and these can, in principle, be almost infinite.

There have always been some jobs like this, such as a priest's and an army officer's, but both these professions have tended to come with an assumption that a wife would submerge her own job entirely to her husband's profession. Anyone who has run their own business also knows that working time obliterates the social hinterland, although the effect on relationships and families is different where other members of the family form part of the working unit.

When both partners in a marriage have demanding professional jobs, the difficulties can be considerable, particularly with regard to childcare. Yet it is hard to see what can stop the spread of working hours. The answer, however, lies in the small print of the report. If it is true, as everyone involved seems to agree, that working as long as possible leads to the job being done worse, then the same demands for professional excellence as started this trend will tend to limit it. Soon, we hope.