The Department for Trade and Industry's consultation on possible changes to the UK’s Working Time Regulations is characterised by an inconsistent and contradictory approach, according to The Work Foundation.
The organisation also attacked the government for claiming to promote work-life balance while asserting, contrary to substantial evidence, that working time has no impact on health and that long hours are essential in a flexible labour
The Work Foundation points out that the consultation suggests that people could work for up to 78 hours a week and possibly longer if they take rest at another time, something it described as "an astonishing statement from a government that claims to be committed to the elimination of excessive hours."
David Coats, The Work Foundation's Associate Director of Policy, said: "The government needs to get their act together on working time. Aiding and abetting long hours on the one hand and promoting work life balance on the other displays confused thinking.
"A workplace culture that says 'you won’t get promoted unless you work long hours' disadvantages women and cannot be squared with the government’s desire to achieve greater gender equality."
Far from being a source of labour market flexibility, the individual opt-out from the Working Time Directive is a source of huge inflexibility, David Coats argues. This helps to explain why output per hour worked is lower in the UK than in other major European countries.
A Work Foundation survey in 2003 found that a quarter of men and women are exhausted much, most or all of the time, and its Work and Well Being Survey 2004 shows that thirty-seven per cent of employees would work fewer hours for less money. It also found that the most frequently given reasons for long hours are a desire for promotion, fears about job security and an excessive volume of work.
As a result, the Work Foundation argues that "it would be quite wrong to conclude, as the government suggests, that seven out of ten of those who work long hours are happy with their pattern of work and choose to work these hours. The reality is that they may feel they have no alternative and are making a virtue of necessity."
However it also admits that many others might not share the same enthusiasm for the state regulating how much time they spend at work. A limit on working hours would mean a pay cut for the seven out of ten skilled and manual employees who work paid overtime. A quarter of self-employed people also put in more than 51 hours a week, while 2.4 million Britons are happy to describe themselves as 'workophiles' who prefer work to home.
As Nick Isles wrote in another Work Foundation report, the Joy of Work, earlier this year, much long hours working is voluntary and many people, particularly those in well paid professional roles, enjoy putting in the time and effort. One in five people earning £60,000 work more than 60 hours a week and almost seven out of ten of those earning between £46,000 and £51,000 work up to 60 hours a week.
But whether the majority of long hours workers would like to work less - and whether this is a 'smart' way of working - are the questions that lie at the heart of the working time debate.