· 2 min read · Features

How can we tackle a long-hours culture?


Most of us were probably told as children that 'Hard work never killed anyone'. Despite the saying, though, it is widely agreed – by academics, trade unions, EU legislators, health and safety experts and others – that it is desirable to limit the number of hours a week that people work. Japanese even has a word for ‘death from overwork’: karoshi.

'Karoshi' is a rare thing, but we all know that a long-hours culture leads to stress and disaffection. Nevertheless, workers feel pressure not to exit the office earlier than their peers. A recent survey by Regus found that almost half the workers in the UK work well over eight hours a day, and over a third put in nine to 11 hours. More than 40% take work home at least three evenings a week.

It is hard to stand firm against the perceived link between hours at the desk and results, and it is even harder in a difficult economic climate. When redundancy decisions are being made, no-one wants to be the person who goes home earliest.

But let me remind you about two things. First, hours worked and productivity are not the same, as figures from the Office of National Statistics and Eurostat highlight.

To most people's astonishment, they show that Greek workers in full-time employment work the longest hours in Europe, at 43.7 hours a week. But in terms of productivity per hours worked, Luxembourg, with one of the shortest full-time working weeks in the EU, far outstrips other countries. Compared with the EU average productivity index of 100, Luxembourg has 189, and Greece 76.3. The UK, with a middle-ranking full-time week of 42.7 hours, has a productivity index of 107. So we need to learn lessons from Luxembourg.

My second thought is that we should bring our own experience to the question of working hours. For myself, I know there are different types of nine-hour day. There's the nine-hour day sandwiched between an hour's commute each way, spent standing on an airless train or crawling through traffic. Or there's the nine-hour day in an office five minutes away from home, where none of one's creative energy is dissipated by the stress of commuting.

A good day at work is energising, a bad day draining, but it is not just a question of how many hours that day involves. Give workers flexibility over their working times and workplace, and they usually become more productive. The stress of commuting to a faraway office stems not just from the time it takes, but from one's powerlessness in the face of delays. If you let people work at a location of their choice, the length of their day may cease to be an issue. Their work can then be measured by results, rather than hours at the desk.

Greg Lunn is regional director at office rental company, Regus