Working hours: Cometh the hour, cometh the (same) man

28 August 2012 – Presseurop Notebook

Recently published EU research says that full-time workers are pulling longer shifts in the face of ongoing economic slump, but hours worked do not equal productivity, says Jason Walsh.

A study performed by Eurofound, the European Union's labour research agency, has found that working hours have increased across the EU, with workers taking-up the slack left by colleagues who have lost their jobs and working longer just to stay in employment.

What is clear is that the traditional office hours of nine-to-five appear to be long behind us, and with most professionals and office-bound workers not actually clocking-on and off it is difficult to know precisely how many hours people are actually working. Indeed, in an era of always-on internet access, smartphones and tablets it is hardly news that more and more of us are taking work home with us.

The aggregate increase across EU as a whole isn't so great: just twelve minutes, up from 39.5 hours per week to 39.7. That figure disguises a number of important facts, however.

Firstly, the survey is only of full-time workers. What of part-timers working extra hours? What of those with more than one job?

Secondly, disparities in working time remain across the EU. The post-2004 accession states work the longest hours, but are also the only cohort of countries to see hours dropping as they begin to come into line with EU norms.

Among the rest there is no correlation between long hours and economic success. Finns work the fewest hours in the EU, at just 37.8, while Greeks work 40 hours per week and Germans work only slightly more at 40.6.

The World Economic Forum's 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report says the ten most productive and competitive economies are, in descending order, Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, Finland, the United States, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and the United Kingdom. Of these the US, Singapore and Japan are notorious for their long hours cultures. The culture in the other seven varies.

Thirdly, as the study was at pains to point out, the greatest differential is between agreed and actual working hours: right across the EU, as well as across industrial sectors, people work longer hours than are specified in contracts and union agreements — and in some cases, employment law.

What is true of a macro level, that long hours do not a strong economy make, may also be true on a micro level. Despite demands on workers to pull ever-longer shifts, productivity slumps when we work too long; a piece of knowedge that we've had since since the early decades of the twentieth century.

This isn't just about the spectre of "presenteeism", the desire to be seen to be in the office regardless of whether you are working or faffing-around on Facebook. Study after study has borne out the fact that there is only so much useful work any one person can do.

There is nothing inherently wrong with long hours, particularly if workers are recompensed appropriately, but hanging around the office for no real reason other than trying to impress the boss does neither party any favours.

Image by Jake Ryan*. CC licenced.*

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