Are long hours worth it?

Kevin White and Jim Whittam argue that working overtime is costly financially and in terms of stress, sickness absence and health and safety.

The UK business community has put up a spirited defence of the opt-out from the Working Time Directive. But there is a strong argument that removing it would end the UK's long-hours culture and dependence on overtime, and improve health and safety.

But it is worth having a serious look at whether long hours and overtime are the best way to boost productivity and cut costs. Organisations that have introduced initiatives such as annualised hours have benefited from reduced labour costs and improved productivity.

For many years, the UK has relied heavily on a long-hours working culture, with extensive use of overtime. And Britons are still working longer hours than almost all their European counterparts, according to research by independent consultancy the Work Foundation.

Flexible working

The UK's opt-out from the directive has been consistently defended by bodies such as the CBI, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and the Engineering Employers Federation, which regards the UK's flexible workforce as crucial to economic success and its ability to be competitive.

But it could be argued that the 48-hour maximum average over a reference period of 17, 26 or 52 weeks can provide more than enough flexibility for businesses to deal with contingencies. After all, the UK's European competitors consistently show higher levels of productivity and lower overall production costs

Today's employees want to work fewer hours, take more holidays, and have flexible patterns which allow them time off during traditional working hours. There is also a trend towards taking holidays away from traditional school holiday times at Christmas, Easter, and in the summer, to meet the year-round demand for winter sports, long-distance travel and breaks at off-peak times for single and child-free employees.

The traditional model of two-week holidays is also changing. Frequent short breaks are becoming more common, with some people opting for longer breaks to accommodate trips to more exotic and distant locations.

If employers turned to solutions such as the annualised hours model as an alternative to overtime, employees could have time off on a regular basis and could plan their leisure time more easily.

'Boom and bust' trends and seasonal demand increases have given rise to a dependence on overtime hours, almost regardless of the needs or preferences of employees, particularly in the construction, rail engineering and other maintenance services, which often depend on out-of-hours activity to gain access to the site, machinery and equipment.

A long-hours culture also continues in the security sector, where many people work a 60-hour week, and in the hospitality sector, such as in catering and kitchen operations, where a 'macho' approach is frequently taken to working time.

Contributing factors

Even in the transport sector, where health and safety is so paramount, working long hours is still firmly entrenched, and many long-distance drivers still work the maximum 50-hour week they are allowed.

After the Clapham rail disaster, in which long hours was a contributing factor, limits were placed on the number of hours that can be worked by train drivers, but the maximum still stands at 72 hours in one week. Such cultures are characterised by mutual dependence on the practice of working long hours to achieve production levels and satisfactory levels of earnings.

The cost of overtime is not just financial, but can be measured in fatigue, stress, high sickness absence and risks to health and safety.

Long hours affect productivity and the morale of the workforce, making workers less motivated and less able to achieve production targets and service levels. As long as overtime practices and long hours remain the mainstay of flexibility in UK industry, low productivity and poor service in these industries will continue.

Wiping the slate clean and opting for an annual hours model has meant significant cost savings and increases in productivity for many employers. They often make better use of assets, which can be a major consideration for organisations such as hospitals or factories that have made huge investments in equipment.

Better planned and thought-out strategies for long-range control of labour costs and for optimum use of labour need to be adopted by management teams who can work with unions and workforce to effect change for the better for all stakeholders.

Kevin White and Jim Whittam are consultants with Working Time Solutions, an organisation specialising in working time software and consulting.