Binge-working turning Brits into a nation of workaholics

Mar 17 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

As Britain's working hours hit a record high, a new report warns that long hours are wrecking family life - and that many parents are turning their backs on employers who won't change.

Half of the 646 parents surveyed by the charity Working Families’ for Time, Health and the Family: What Working Families Want were unhappy with their work and family balance.

A majority reported that work dominated their lives, with family life suffering as a result and many parents not eating healthily or taking regular exercise.

Working long hours also led to increased levels of stress, resulting in irritability, exhaustion and depression.

The report comes as official statistics released this week show that working hours in Britain now stand at their highest since records began 13 years ago.

The average time spent at work – which includes part-time workers – has risen 23 minutes over the past year to 32 hours and 14 minutes a week.

Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families, said that a culture of "binge-working" is turning Britain into a nation of workaholics.

"This is having a disastrous effect on our health, our family life and our performance at work. We need to work shorter, leaner hours and make time for our families and communities,” she said.

One in five of those surveyed by Working Families are contracted to work more than 40 hours a week. But more than half (56 per cent) worked longer than this in practice.

More than half of working parents also felt obliged to work long hours just to get their job done, with rising to almost three-quarters of parents who worked more than 45 hours a week.

Only four per cent are contracted to work more than 45 hours, but one in five do on a regular basis.

Nearly half of the parents interviewed also said that no flexible working arrangements were offered by their employer.

As a result, over a third felt stressed at work, rising to nearly half (45 per cent) of those who worked more than 45 hours.

This manifests itself in increased irritability, sleeplessness, lack of exercise and exhaustion. Many also drink too much and eat unhealthy food.

Nearly half also complained that work stopped them putting their children to bed, and more almost six out of 10 said that it affected their ability to help them with their homework.

But significantly, a majority of all parents thought that they should take responsibility for improving their work-life balance themselves - and their solution is to vote with their feet and look for another job that offers more flexibility.

This growing rejection of employers who fail to address work-life balance issues was underlined last month by the Recruitment Confidence Index's (RCI) Employee Confidence Survey.

Its survey of more than 5,000 people revealed that four out of 10 viewed working hours as a "crucial" factor in choosing an employer while half also said it was important that an employer offered them good opportunities to balance work with home.

According to Cranfield School of Management's Dr Emma Parry, the RCI survey highlighted that employers who continue to believe that work-life balance is not a major issue for their staff are deluding themselves.

Meanwhile the Working Families report found that in terms of expected improvements from employers, the most important is seen as cultural – changing the perception that it is good or important to work long hours.

And as the report points out, as working hours increase, so morale and productivity falls.

Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, one of the authors of the report, said that the message to employers is that ‘Time is up on long hours working’.

"Far from leading to an effective workforce, working long hours leads to high levels of stress, ill health and decreased morale and productivity," he said.

"Merely having flexible working policies is not sufficient if the dominant culture does not support their meaningful use. It’s time to work smarter, not longer."

And he added that work-home imbalance also has consequences for wider society. Government policy drives to increase the health and fitness of children and adults are unlikely to be assisted by a workforce which is too time-starved to actively participate in such measures, he warned.

But perhaps only a dose of self-interest will change the attitudes of some dinosaur employers. Because as Cary Cooper points out: "they need to look closely at the culture in their organisations or risk losing the parents who work for them."