All work and no play can hinder competitiveness

Now that it is the holiday season, many people will soon be trooping back to offices and workplaces determined not only to keep hold of their tans, but also their sense of refreshment and calm. Taking a break from work focuses the mind on the other side of life and striking a balance between the […]

Now that it is the holiday season, many people will soon be trooping back to offices and workplaces determined not only to keep hold of their tans, but also their sense of refreshment and calm.

Taking a break from work focuses the mind on the other side of life and striking a balance between the two. Invariably, holidays make us reflect that we often don’t strike the correct balance and that work is too dominant. Then, after a short while such considerations are forgotten and the old patterns and often the cultures of long hours resume.

But the work/life balance is steadily becoming a wider and deeper issue. New rights planned include paid parental leave so that more people can afford to take up their allocation. Mothers are expected to be allowed to return to part-time work, if they choose, rather than full-time. Employees have the right to take time off for family emergencies.

The working-time directive, which the government tried to dilute last year, has focused attention on the fact that British employees work some of the longest hours in Europe – 44 compared with the continental average of 40 – but without any benefits in productivity. It also highlighted the fact that the number of people working more than 48 hours a week – the limit set by the directive – has climbed sharply to four million in recent years.

Voluntary overworking will not disappear with legislation, but an increased emphasis on the work/life balance may serve to whittle away at the prevailing belief that long hours are necessarily good hours.

The CBI is growing increasingly nervy about work/life balance objectives. It sees a plethora of rights, many emanating from Europe, cropping up across a wide area of legislation. The government seems to be increasingly acknowledging that its business friendly credentials could have alienated some of its union support and is making noises accordingly over employment law.

The CBI wants a green paper on the work/life balance debate so that the government can use it as a focus for such policy making. The TUC fears this could be a stalling device aimed at kicking initiatives into the long grass. Employers are naturally concerned about the competitiveness implications of more legislation and greater time allowances for employees.

But a greater emphasis on a more balanced division between work and home life could well deliver longer term benefits in productivity. A series of surveys have demonstrated that stress – often attributed to having too little time – is a growing reason for absence from work. `All work and no play…’ may be an old adage, but its relevance today appears to be growing.

Christine Buckley is industry editor of The Times

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