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The Work FoundationMedia centre – Press releases

12 April 2005

The UK – The Work horse of the European Union?

Britons are still working longer hours than almost all European counterparts, according to a new research project by The Work Foundation.

Still at Work?- An empirical test of competing theories of the long hours culture by Dr. Marc Cowling – Chief Economist of The Work Foundation and Natalie Turner, Researcher at The Work Foundation, looks not only at the extent of long hours worked across Europe, but at how Britons compare to other members of the EU. The study examines who is working the longest hours in Europe and tests competing hypotheses that seek to identify potential causes.

Unlike many previous research studies, which have tended to look at working hours in comparison to the US, and to treat Western Europe as one coterminous ‘lump’, this new research provides a country by country comparison across the EU. All 15 EU countries were examined, with workers in all major occupation groups assessed as well as workers in all industry sectors and socio-economic groups.

While the actual proportion of people working more than 60 hours per week in any one European country is still small, in the UK around 896,000 men and 492,000 women regularly work more than 60 hours per week. However, what is of interest is the culture of long hours, the concept of ‘presenteeism’ (people spending ever longer hours at their place of work because they think it is expected – if not productive) and the fact that long hours are increasingly acceptable to EU employers and employees.

The UK now has the second highest proportion of men working more than 60 hours per week in the EU, with Ireland the first. The pattern of working in excess of a 60 hour week is prevalent throughout the EU – Portugal lies just behind UK and Ireland in the table – with only Belgium and the Netherlands showing a less than average number of workers working in excess of 60 hours each week.

Roles that ‘attract’ the highest proportion of long hours workers across the EU are – for men – administrators, skilled manual and salesmen and for women, legislators (senior administrators and middle manager in the public and private sectors) and skilled manual workers. One in five male administrators and skilled manual workers now work in excess of 60 hours per week. The industry sector is critical to determining how long you spend at work but it’s different for men and women. Men who work long hours are found in hotel and catering and transport and communications. For women, working in agriculture leads to putting in the most hours and only working in the hotel and catering sector comes close.

The research also shows some marked differences in the long hours culture between men and women. Although women do not work as long as men on the whole, women in more EU countries are working longer hours, and variations in the hours women work are more marked across different countries in the EU. Marginal disutility, the point at which longer hours become less productive, is also higher for women.

Also in terms of organisational type those working in the private sector work significantly longer than public sector workers while the smaller a business is the more likely employees are to work long hours.

Another interesting variation is that men at the top and bottom income quartiles work the longest hours, whereas for women the propensity to work longer hours increases as they move through the income distribution quartiles. This suggests that the sexes are working long hours for different reasons.

To explain concepts that The Work Foundation’s research has revealed, Dr. Cowling also examined some of the most commonly put forward explanations for these trends, and tested them against this new data. These results can be summarised as follows: –

Labour-Leisure Trade Off – the concept that people working longer hours will have less time for leisure consumption, that high earners will buy a different type of leisure and that the highest earners actually have more leisure time. The Work Foundation has found that work and leisure are not necessarily a trade off. In fact, the only non-work activity associated with a reduction in hours is eldercare that, it can be argued is actually unpaid work. There is little evidence that higher incomes are associated with long hours. It appears that if both sexes want to ‘get on’ they will find ways of incorporating both work and leisure into their day.

Social Contagion is the concept that long hours are self-fulfilling and that long hours become an accepted part of an organisation’s culture by newcomers conforming to established patterns. This theory has its roots in the 1980s and 1990s recessions where long hours became a way of job protection. The Work Foundation’s findings unsurprisingly reveal variations between industry sectors and that men find it more difficult to juggle long hours with social and family commitments and maintain a happy domestic life, the same is not true for women. Workers on fixed contracts – especially men – show job insecurity, working long hours to prove themselves and perhaps convert their contract to permanent employment. And, although the theory suggests that closely supervised workers work the longest hours, in fact the opposite is true, with close supervision reducing the number of hours worked.

Escape from Family/Home Stress – this theory proposes that employees work long hours to escape from a stressful home life. In fact, it is difficult to tell if those working longer hours are dissatisfied at home. What can be noted is that while men find it difficult to work long hours and maintain family commitments, women with two or more children work longer hours compared to those with one or two children – perhaps to escape the chaos of home.

Rewards of Work – Work gives a feeling of well-being; those in higher status jobs get more from their home life and from their work – and therefore tend to work harder. It follows that individuals who work the longest hours will be more satisfied with their job and more involved with their work. Again, The Work Foundation has found that satisfaction is difficult to measure and that work involvement is a factor of occupational status rather than hours. Though there is no evidence that long hours working increases or decreases job satisfaction.

“This study and its methodology has revealed some real food for thought,” commented Dr Mark Cowling. “Firstly, the fact that we are looking at Europe as a group of very different EU countries is fairly unique. Most studies of this type tend to compare the UK with the US and Japan, meaning that the long hours worked in the UK does not seem atypical. It is only when compared to Europe that the true extent of our working culture becomes apparent. And, while all of the theories go some way to explaining the prevalence of this culture, none fully explain it. There is obviously more work to be done!”

“Every study of long hours is important for different reasons,” Dr Cowling continued, “Long hours cultures can have real implications for each country – they can lead to an increase in workplace stress, and a decline in productivity, as marginal productivity decreases with the number of hours worked. And, as long hours in the EU continue to increase, we are certain to hear more and more about the effects of long hours on EU employers and employees.”

Note to Editors:

  • The Work Foundation is an independent, not-for-dividend, evidence-based research organisation and consultancy.The Work Foundation exists to inspire and deliver improvements to performance through improving the quality of working life. It believes that productive, high performance organisations are those committed to making work more fulfilling, fun, inspirational and effective, and through engaging their workforce succeed in integrating the many aims crucial to organisational success.
  • Dr. Marc Cowling – Chief Economist of The Work Foundation and Natalie Turner, Researcher at The Work Foundation are available for interview. Please contact the press office.
  • Press copies are available from our website www.theworkfoundation.com (pdf 379kb) or by contacting the press office.

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