Leading article: Work matters, hours don't

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH work longer hours than most. Is it time for us to "get a life"? The Government seems to think so. It is going to implement the European directive which, more or less, will limit us to working 48 hours a week. As a spokesman for the trade unions put it: "Workers need legal protection on health and safety but also on how many hours they work, so they can have a life outside work".

We wouldn't be so sure about the last bit. Of course no one should be intimidated or forced to work for excessively long days against their wishes. Transport workers and hospital doctors should be prevented from damaging our health as well as their own. But there are powerful reasons why the Government shouldn't get in the way of those who happily choose to work - or appear to work - barmy hours.

There are groups who should clearly be exempt. Freelance ''portfolio workers'' are often a nervous and harried lot, driven by the most potent fear of all - losing their job. They often choose to work every hour God gives for reasons of security. As the song says, they make hay while the sun shines and make love when it rains. The telephone may not ring tomorrow. It isn't up to government or unions to prescribe their security and income - no central authority knows enough about their endless balancing act.

Then there are those for whom long hours represent giving rather than taking. They are their own bosses, and, as they will tell you, you can be your own worst boss. There is no such thing as a 9 to 5 entrepreneur. A country in which people are forbidden to work themselves half to death trying to become millionaires would be a failed one.

Then there are those who just look like they work really hard. They may not be producing much at their workstations but they flee to the sanctum of long hours in the office to avoid confronting something terrifying at home, maybe loneliness or a disintegrating relationship. The Government should not underestimate the size of this latter group. Britain may well have one of the longest working weeks in Europe but it also has one of the highest divorce rates: many of those breakups are caused by work-related stress and insufficient leisure. But we are odd animals and many people stay together because of long hours apart. No one, not even ministers, should presume to know the secrets of millions of hearts.

There's another bogus group of "hard workers", those whose working hours consist of, as far as possible, being at work five minutes before the boss arrives and leaving five minutes after the boss leaves. If their boss has the same approach as they do to impressing his boss, and his boss in turn has the same attitude, then a cycle of "over-work" is set up. It is a familiar but transparent part of many work cultures; and if legislation could end that nonsense, so much the better.

Overwork is often a male thing, driven by the macho, competitive, ballsy, atmosphere to be found in some professions, and by the extension of the working day to the pub or wine bar where the continuation of work by other means can take place and where flirting, networking and bitching can thrive. Women, particularly women with children, are likelier to finish their work promptly and efficiently; and then go home.

None of these things really needs to be or could be regulated by the Government. But what about those employees who have, or want to have, a life - and who are looking for help in balancing work and play? For them there are better solutions than those offered by the European Union and the DTI.

First are the slow, sure, changes that are taking place in the labour market. Cultural and social change often makes legislation redundant. More and more women are entering the workforce and are challenging old male customs. The loudest voices in favour of reform of Parliament (where all the worst practices find an indulgent home) have been female. Part- time working is much more commonplace. Working from home too. Now you can do your shopping on a Sunday and your banking from your study. Flexitime is the norm and fewer and fewer of us live under the petty tyranny of "clocking on". There is a growing plurality in work.

And there is the sanction of the market. A rotten workplace will deter the best staff. A responsible employer will notice this. Long hours, real or fabricated, do not necessarily mark a productive organisation. Watching staff do nothing and claim overtime while they wait for the boss to go home can't be pleasant. Many employers and line managers already adopt a libertarian approach to setting a target for their staff and allowing them to achieve it in the way they desire, rather than stressing the number of hours they have to put in. If someone can do a week's work in 20 hours that should be good news for all. They should be encouraged. Who knows, it might be one way to start dealing with the super-strength pound. And maybe then we could all get a life.

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