Too many UK workers feel under pressure to exceed their contractual time. The British do far more hours than their European counterparts, who genuinely see no reason to stay at their workplace to show their dedication.
In Scandinavian countries, working more than contractual hours often leads to a deduction in the annual performance review marking, in direct proportion to the excess hours spent in the workplace. And this attitude doesn’t seem to be doing any harm to organisations’ productivity in Sweden. Quite the opposite: it is often matched by staff loyalty and commitment, expressed in the quality of work produced and in productivity.
So why do we do it in the UK? Graham Houston, director of the Industrial Society in Scotland, puts it this way: companies have downsized so much over the past few years that many people feel that doing long hours will help them retain their jobs come the next round of staff cuts.
Rewarding such workplace behaviour reflects the unsophisticated system of measurements that UK employers apply to workers’ output. Putting in excessive hours affects the other side of our life: when do we have any time for our family or for ourselves?
Management Today, which published the results of its quality-of-work/life survey last summer, found that almost 50% of managers who responded felt they were just coping, and that the long hours they were expected to work had a detrimental effect on their personal relationships.
The cost of personal, family and community breakdown is expensive, yet that is what we risk when we cannot achieve a balance. How can we achieve this unless we establish new guidelines now?
For most office-based people there is now no need to go into the office five days a week or to maintain a strict regime of working eight to six. The enablers to good work-life balance exist. Technology the internet, e-mail, videoconferencing and mobile telephones offers the scope for flexible hours and working from a variety of locations.
There will be opportunities for working at job-share or part-time jobs for a few years. However, the conditions for contracts and pension schemes need to be changed to accommodate for a more dynamic type of lifestyle.
Good employers know that people work better if they are not stressed or weighed down by family worries.
So the next time someone tells you how dedicated and ambitious he or she is, citing as a criterion the number of hours they put in last week, remind them of the Swedish example.
The National Work-Life Forum is a partnership of organisations including BT, HSBC, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Industrial Society which is working towards finding solutions for this modern predicament.
Launched in January this year, it aims to raise awareness of the issues at corporate, government, community and individual level and to work towards developing strategies for changing the way we do things.
A UK-wide programme of events started in January in Glasgow and five other events are planned. There are also five projects and action learning groups, each addressing different aspects of work.
In spring, the forum will publish strategies for action. A healthily challenged but balanced workforce adds to the bottom line.