Long hours not good for you or your boss

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Workers are each putting in nearly £5,000 of unpaid overtime a year and staff in the east of England are among those working the longest hours. But working long and late may not be best for you or your boss.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Working late again? Got something on the go which just needs a few extra hours at the coalface? Then again, you might be one of those getting in at the crack of dawn. Or perhaps you're taking your work home and burning the midnight oil to get a project done?

Well, the TUC is warning that the overworking culture may be bad for you, your firm and UK plc.

The union has calculated that people put in £23bn of unpaid overtime last year at an average cost of £4,800 per employee.

A study shows that employees working for nothing were doing an average of 7hrs 6mins extra a week.

And guess what? Workers in eastern England notched up 7hrs 12mins of unpaid overtime a week. That's behind the league leaders in the North East, who came top with 7hrs 42mins, but ahead of bottom- placed Scotland's 6hrs 30mins.

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The TUC says its research confirms that UK workers do the longest hours in Europe, with four million working more than 48 hours a week on average - 700,000 more than in 1992, when there was no long-hours protection.

And now it has designated February 23 as "Work Your Proper Hours Day". It urges people to take a proper lunch break on that day and make sure they go home on time.

Managers should pick up the tab on that day or even buy them a drink after work to thank them for their unpaid efforts, it is suggested.

The fact that unions have to urge people to work no more than their normal hours for one symbolic day shows how deeply ingrained the UK's long-hours culture is.

The research follows recent studies showing that workers often take only a few minutes for lunch, and then only to buy a sandwich to eat at their desk.

Sound familiar?

Unions blame overwork for spiralling and costly sickness absence rates, poor productivity and increased levels of stress, especially among white-collar workers.

The Health and Safety Executive has calculated that sickness absence costs the UK economy £12bn a year, while work-related stress now accounts for a third of all new incidents of ill-health.

Almost 13 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2004-5, health officials calculated.

Despite campaigners designating an annual Stress Awareness Day and a plethora of workshops, stress management courses and practical guides, unions argue that the problem will never be tackled unless working hours are cut.

One of the biggest sources of conflict between unions and the government is the UK's opt-out from regulations designed to limit working hours to 48 a week.

The TUC believes that health and safety legislation should not be optional, arguing that mistakes and accidents often stem from fatigue.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber says too many workplaces are "gripped" by a long-hours culture.

"Although UK workers work the longest hours in the EU - three hours a week more than the average - UK labour productivity is only 95pc of the EU average, and our ranking is just 10th out of 15.

"Long working hours have hamper-ed the achievement of high productivity in the UK. Too many employers have tried to use long hours as a substitute for improving work organisation or investing in training and new technology," he said.

Campaigners also warn that long hours affect family life. A recent study found that fathers in professional and managerial jobs are more likely to work long hours and are least likely to be involved in the care of their children.

Most mothers whose partner works more than 48 hours want them to cut down, research has shown.

But ministers, backed by employers, believe people should be able to work longer hours if they want to and do not accept that hours should be strictly regulated.

Employers point to other data that show a small drop - 18 minutes - in the average amount of extra work put in last year by people doing unpaid overtime.

Richard Tunnicliffe, CBI director for the east of England, said employers were increasingly offering flexible working to help staff juggle work and family life.

"It is in nobody's interests for employees to work excessively long hours, but staff understand - as the TUC acknowledges - that there are times when extra hours need to be worked to get the job done," he said.

"Hourly workers receive overtime payments and frequently value the extra earnings - while professional staff work the length of time required to get the job done, with the likelihood of overtime often taken into account through a more generous basic salary.

"Employers are increasingly offering flexible hours, including part-time working, to help staff balance the demands of work and family life. The latest CBI figures show that nine out of 10 companies offer at least one form of flexible working.

"Of course employees must have the right to say 'no' to working long hours, but the opt-out from the working time directive gives individuals the freedom to work longer if they want to."

It seems that far from being a nation of clock watchers, more of us are spending too much time at work.

On the other hand, February 23 is a Friday - isn't that when most of us try to get back to our families at a reasonable hour anyway?