We must break our 45-hours-a-week habit

Work, work, work. And this was supposed to be the 'quality of life decade', says Polly Toynbee
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The Independent Online
It comes as no earth-shattering revelation to learn from a survey in the British Medical Journal yesterday that white-collar workers feel more insecure at work, and this is damaging their physical and psychological well-being. What's new? Look around you and what do you see? Downsized, delayered people falling to pieces under the strain of overwork.

At the height of the late Eighties boom, futurologists were predicting that the Nineties would be the 'quality of life decade'. Mad materialism would give way to softer values, leisure time, green issues, self-fulfilment. As if.

What have we got instead? The British are working the longest hours in Europe - four hours more than the thriving Germans. More than a quarter work over 45 hours a week, with managerial and professional people working the hardest - up an extra two hours in the past decade. According to the Institute of Management, 41 per cent of managers work over 50 hours, 13 per cent over 60 hours, while 53 per cent work weekends once or twice a month.

Something has gone badly wrong. An economy growing at 2 per cent a year should be giving us more, not less, pleasure. Running faster up the down escalator, all we get is a more miserable, overworked, sick and anxious workforce. Along with the monthly economic indicators, there should a contentment indicator, reminding us what the money is for. Professor Robert Lane, of Yale, studying quality of life surveys, concludes that apart from among the very poor, there is no correlation between happiness and income.

Reducing working hours was one of those signs of social progress taught in history lessons. In 1860, average working hours were 57, and reduced steadily until 1975. Had the same rate of progress continued, we would now have a working week of 35 hours.

Not only would it be a blessing for those in work, but in theory those five hours would have released enough working time to employ another two and three quarter million full-time workers, solving our unemployment problem at a stroke.

Of course, that is an impossible and absurd sum. Much of the overwork in the upper echelons is unpaid. Galloping new technology is making each worker more productive, and employers might simply invest in higher tech to save taking on more people. Employers would offer overtime deals to their existing staff, and many of the unemployed are virtually unemployable. Even so, Paul Gregg, of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, taking account of employers' likely reactions, estimates that a 35-hour week would still mean the creation of one million more jobs.

Since Britain is refusing to sign up to the EU's proposed upper limit of 48 hours, a 35-hour compulsory maximum is hardly credible. And who would police such a prohibition? But voluntary agreements, at virtually no extra cost to employers, are another matter.

More than half of those who work more than 44 hours want to work less, although they are the people with the best jobs. A quarter of them say they would willingly earn less in exchange for shorter hours. Redistribution of wealth has become an unfashionable idea, but a fairer distribution of time might have a strong resonance with many overworked voters.

Some couldn't afford it and some wouldn't want it, but a significant number choosing it could change the working climate. The ambitious are often afraid to suggest it, but I can imagine an attractive new role for modernised white-collar trade unionists stepping in to negotiate voluntary agreements, with briefcases full of flexible working models. Trade unions are about as fashionable as puffball skirts, but as time-brokers they might be welcomed in places where high-flyers are too frightened of each other to consider change.

The culture of overwork has taken deep root as the management consultants, like kulaks, whip the downsized workforces on to ever higher productivity. Breaking this back-breaking habit of work could be helped by government initiatives and incentives, since the Government gains through getting more people back to work. A change in the political vocabulary could signal a new set of values for the dangerously work-addicted. Governments talk exclusively of money as the goal - but offering people time instead is more valuable to frenetic lives.