Employers and work-life balance

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Employers and Work-life Balance

Long Hours or Workaholics?

Are the British really in thrall to long hours or presenteeism? Either option suggests that we have problems with the management of UK organisations. “Still at work?”, a study conducted by The Work Foundation, examined the issue of European legislation on working hours. Using a survey of the working populations of the 15 core European member states the research showed that the UK is still working the longest hours in Europe, along with Ireland and Portugal. This is bad news for individuals and bad news for the performance of firms. Detailed analysis of the data suggests some possible reasons for the long hours culture. The variations across different countries suggest that cultural and social norms are probably playing a role. In the UK this might include behaviour arising from economic events, such as the down turns at the beginning of the 80s and 90s, or the increased competition and intensification of work associated with globalisation. Such behaviours are compounded at firm-level where competitive pressures create strict routines and embedded attitudes. Often an individual’s commitment is judged by the time spent at their desks, in part due to the absence of more tangible measures of performance.

The analysis of how working hours relate to gender revealed some pertinent differences. The variation amongst females across countries was more significant, perhaps suggesting that females are more influenced by cultural and social norms. In addition, males were more likely to work longer hours at the extreme ends of the income scale, with the low-paid and the high-paid working significantly longer hours than the rest. This was not the case for females who worked steadily more hours the higher up the income scale they moved. This might suggest that for females the desire for career progression is associated with working longer hours, fitting in with the influence of social and cultural norms. The pattern found amongst males is most likely explained by the occupational differences in long hours working. For instance, the research showed that one in five legislators and skilled manual workers worked more than 60 hours per week.

The report concludes that those wanting ‘to get on’ in life are working longer hours and supplementing this by acquiring additional human capital – further training and qualifications. Interestingly, doing voluntary work or under-stating further education or training were both associated with working longer hours. Unfortunately, these opportunities are reduced for those with responsibility for elder care as it is associated with reduced working hours.

Such results suggest that it is imperative that attitudes change towards the performance of individuals at work. Hours spent at a desk do not necessarily constitute high performance or demonstrate commitment. Performance management initiatives need to be revolutionised towards measuring outputs rather than mere inputs. Relying on ambiguous measures of performance potential creates a tense and hostile working environment and exacerbates inequalities. For instance, women are already experiencing a ‘pay gap’ with their male counterparts, whilst increasingly having to negotiate trade-offs between career and child rearing. For this reason, implicitly supporting a long hours culture, especially one which associates long hours with career success, creates further obstacles for women and others who can’t stay and won’t stay. The tendency for companies to encourage people to believe that a ‘two jackets’ culture is the norm is time limited.

© Work-Life balance part of The Work Foundation 2005