Hours not to reason whyOn 30 Sep 2003 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article The cause of the British addiction to long hours are much too complicated tobe tackled by legislationThe Working Time Regulations are five years old this week. Limiting thenumber of hours worked was always a strange and foreign notion in the UK, andno-one should be surprised that, for the most part, the regulations seem tohave made little difference. The Government proudly informed its peons they set a new record for hoursworked recently – putting in 8.5 million more hours than the previous quarter.And according to a forthcoming survey from the Chartered Institute of Personneland Development, 26 per cent of workers claim (emphasis on ‘claim’, of course)they work more than 48 hours a week, compared with 10 per cent in 1998. Most businesses have scrupulously ignored the regulations – without muchinterest from officialdom. And since 2001, the Health and Safety Executive, thebody principally charged with policing working time, has issued just 22enforcement notices and only made two prosecutions. Meanwhile, infringements to working time laws have yet to make much of adent on the tribunal system. In 2002-2003, there were 1,403 claims, of whichtribunals eventually agreed with just 106. And where ignorance fails, there is always the next best thing: the opt-out.Employers love the opt-out as much as a means of minimising hassle – allthose nitpicking calculations about 17-week reference periods and equivalentcompensatory rest – as a way of grinding the hours out of the workforce. Not having made much difference, however, is not quite the same as sayingthey might just as well have not existed. The regulations contain many fine things. As a symbolic recognition of theproblem of long hours, with all their associated health risks and socialdestructiveness, the regulations mark a real turning point. With hindsight, it seems scandalous that there was no right to paid holidaysbefore they were introduced (three million workers were expected to benefit in1998). Moreover, the requirement that employers organise work in accord with”the general principle of adapting work to the worker”, as theworking time directive puts it, still sounds fresh and novel. Yet the story so far of regulating UK working time is one of the limitationsof legislation in trying to drag a culture in one direction, when multiplepressures are pulling it in another. The British way with long hours is among the most widely known facts ofworking life. And yet it remains the hardest to explain. The reasons are complex, heterodox and highly diverse among differentgroups. As soon as you start to think through them, it becomes perfectly clearthat tackling the way a society uses time through the clumsy instrument of thelaw is a profoundly tricky enterprise. Probably the biggest single cause is the great British tradition of low pay.To make a decent living, many workers have to put in long hours, preferablywith overtime, and sometimes supplemented with a second job or self-employmenton top. Despite falls in paid overtime, about a quarter of the workforce stillreceive it. And those consistently putting in the longest week are plant andmachine operatives, and workers in transport and distribution. Yet for others, economics is only tangentially related to the time theyspend working. For professionals and managers, it is workload and workintensity, blended with the mysterious cocktail of emotions that breed inoffices, that best explain the hours: the popularity of teamwork imports a‘don’t-let-the-side-down’ diligence; guilt travels fast in open-plan spaces; aninked-out schedule brings kudos; the desire to belong propels employees towardsreplicating the template of long hours. Such subtle promptings are far moreeffective than employers forcing people to sign an opt-out. Then, there is a further tribe of workers concentrated in the self-styledknowledge industries, who put in long hours because a rigid distinction betweenwork and life makes no sense to them. Is thinking about work, work? Is thepost-work schmoozing of contacts work? What about background reading? Or thesending of a quick e-mail? Technology has made it hard to know quite where workends and life begins. A leaky border is a welcome development for employers, but the point here isthat employers are not solely responsible for the culture of long hours. These are perhaps singularly British explanations – the ones stemming fromour history of resisting the regulation of working time and the Atlanticistleanings of our culture (the UK work ethic is still some way short of USstandards). But there are, of course, many more universal factors involved. There is asizable portion of workers – statistics will never really ascertain how many –for whom work is a kind of sanctuary. This category encompasses the lucky fewwho find in their work some expression of their personality; after all,research into the psychological contract has found a striking correlationbetween people who work the longest hours and those who are most satisfied. Yet it must also take into account those who treat work as a refuge from thebedlam of family life. Compared with minding children, work is fairlystress-free. At least its rhythms bring some psychological order to the day. Suffice to say, then, that the British habit of long hours is a deep-rooted,multi-stranded affair that defies easy explanation. Now – blocking out allthoughts of reforming pay structures, or obliging employers to monitorworkloads, or campaigning for workers to work contract hours – just imaginepassing a law restricting working hours. What an ambition. Related posts:No related photos.