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How much is too much work?

Ksenia Zheltoukhova

24 February 2012

We all know that work is good for our health. However, with too much work, the productivity value may in fact decrease with each extra hour, as working overtime regularly leads to burnout. In addition, research shows that extra hours of work are associated with depression and significantly increase the risk of a heart attack. Putting in extra hours spills into social relationships and affects caring responsibilities.

Trades Union Congress estimates that UK employees put in £28.8 bn worth of unpaid hours of work each year, or 55 days per worker. They’ve calculated that if all the unpaid overtime worked by the average employee were put at the start of the year, they would only start ‘earning for themselves’ from mid-February each year. To mark the vast number of unpaid days, the Work Your Proper Hours Day (24 February) invites individuals to have a proper lunchbreak and leave work on time to start enjoying the weekend.

At the time of the recession, employers are understandably keen to achieve the same-level or higher performance targets with a smaller workforce, presenting employees with more demanding tasks and forcing them to put in extra hours. Many organisations have nurtured the culture of long hours, where those who choose to leave earlier than others are branded bad team players.

Under the stress of competition for jobs, employees themselves tend to reiterate the long-hours culture. UK employees are currently among the hardest working in Europe – with an average of 42.7 hours a week, behind only Austria and Greece. Managers are under particular pressure to put in extra, as they have to serve as an example for junior employees. 

However, staying in the office just for the sake of demonstrating ‘engagement’ is, in fact, presenteeism. In practice, many individuals will stay in the office longer than required by their work demands just through peer or manager pressure, leaving work not having done much, but most importantly with a feeling that they’ve been treated unfairly.

In the current climate of job insecurity the onus is on the employer to foster the culture of ensuring that the extra working hours – if unavoidable – are healthy and rewarding. While organisations may not be able to afford paying for that overtime, most employees will still be willing to contribute extra, as long as their managers explicitly acknowledge that loyalty and offer discretionary rewards like flexible hours or time in lieu.

Are you putting in unnecessarily long hours? Is it a healthy effort? To test your work-life balance and identify areas for improvement, complete a free work SMART questionnaire developed by Professor Cary Cooper.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 4 Comments)

Brendan Caffrey

24 Feb 2012 2:22PM

What you are missing in analysing long hours at work is fear. Fear of losing your job now or in the future; fear of unemployment; fear that ones colleagues are more competitive than cooperative!

Nigel Meager

24 Feb 2012 4:43PM

No-one would disagree that excessive working hours are unhealthy, but your case is not helped by some very selective and inaccurate citation of statistics. There are other ways of looking at the data on working time suggesting that: a) things have been getting better in recent years and; b) the UK isn’t as bad, in international comparison, as you suggest.
You say “UK employees are currently among the hardest-working in Europe – with an average of 42.7 hours a week, only behind Austria and Greece.” This is wrong in two respects: the 42.7 hours average crucially does not refer to “employees” as you suggest, but to all people in employment (including the self-employed, who notoriously have very long working hours, and skew the overall average upwards). Second, the 42.7 hours refers not to all workers, but only to full-time workers and takes no account of the large and growing share of part-time workers in the UK (a growing proportion of whom actually say that they’d prefer to work longer hours).
If you look at all workers in the UK, average actual working hours are 31.5 per week, and have been falling consistently year on year since the mid 90s. And if you look specifically at people in work with long hours, the proportion usually working more than 45 hours a week in the UK in 2011 is 17.7% (mainly men). That’s still quite a lot, of course, but the crucial point is that it’s been on a pretty systematic downward trend since the late 90s, when it peaked at around 24%.
And what about international comparisons? Well the latest OECD data on this question (for 2010) show average annual hours actually worked per person in employment. The UK (at 1,647 hours) is well below the average for the OECD as a whole (1,749), and is ranked 24th out of 34 countries for which data are available. When it comes to long hours working, the OECD present the data slightly differently (for people working 40 hours or more per week): in the UK, it seems that 46% of people in employment work 40 weekly hours or more, compared with 64% across the OECD, and on this indicator the UK ranks only 28th out of 35 countries.
Of course none of this is to say that long hours are never a problem, or that work-life balance isn’t important, but the received wisdom that the UK has a unique problem of a ‘long hours’ culture, which is getting worse rather than better, doesn’t seem to square with (all) the evidence.

Ksenia Zheltoukhova

28 Feb 2012 11:27AM

Dear Neil
Thank you for your detailed comment and for your point about the focus on the full-time workers in the European Survey I cited.
I do believe though that considering the changes in the working hours of full-time and part-time workers together may lead to a skewed picture of overtime work. There may be a decreasing trend in the number of hours worked weekly, but it doesn’t take into account the core changes in the composition of the labour market, namely the increase in the part-time workforce that you mention.
If you look at the same OECD data distributed by the hour band, you might see that there is an increase of workers who put in 20 to 29 hours of work and 30 to 34 hours. That is ‘usual’ work hours. OECD defines part-time workers as those who work less than 30-hour weeks and full-time workers as those who work 30+. My question then is – who are the people in the 30-34 hour band? Are they full-time workers, or part-time workers, putting in overtime? Because many ways of data collection still benchmark work week at 40 hours, there is not enough evidence to judge which way the data are skewed, if at all.
Finally, I doubt that any of the data will ever accurately measure the impact of the workplace culture on the tendency to work overtime among both full-time and part-time employees. Why do many part-time workers ‘actually say that they’d prefer to work longer hours’? Above, Brendan Caffrey quite rightly highlights the fear that drives many employees to work long hours without reporting them, and I would refer you back to the TUC report, which confirms the growing trend in overtime work, as it measures how many extra hours people work relatively to their contracted hours. The recent estimates on the extent of bullying in organisations hint at the reasons why overtime becomes workplace culture.

Nike TN

06 Mar 2012 11:44AM

most employees will still be willing to contribute extra, as long as their managers explicitly acknowledge that loyalty and offer discretionary rewards like flexible hours or time in lieu.