The idea that Britain is suffering from a long hours epidemic is largely a myth put about by trade unions and pressure groups, a new report has claimed. Indeed it can just as easily be argued that the UK has a short hours working culture as a long hours culture.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, while there are more people who work over 48 hours in the UK than in other EU countries, just over a quarter of the workforce in the UK work fewer than 30 hours a week – a far greater proportion than their continental counterparts.
Other facts that the CIPD says often get overlooked in the debate over working time is that the average working hours for full-time workers in the UK are actually falling, while research consistently shows that three-quarters of long-hours workers do so out of choice.
CIPD research also shows that nearly a quarter of workers who work more than 48 hours a week do so for financial reasons – one of the concerns associated with removing the Working Time Regulations opt-out clause is that it would increase moonlighting with employees forced to take up a second job if overtime is curtailed.
"The CIPD is opposed to long hours working and wants to see greater flexibility at work to help individuals balance their work and home lives more effectively," said Ben Willmott, CIPD Employee Relations Adviser.
"However, we don't believe that a statutory restriction on working time through the removal of the Working Time Regulations opt-out clause is the best way of achieving this.
Research by the Federation of European Employers (FedEE) has gone even further, suggesting that EU policies actually exacerbate the long working hours culture through social policies that allow too many people too much time off.
Despite having the most liberal working time regulations in western Europe, Britain's average work-week is only slightly higher than the overall EU25 average once the effects of short-term absence are taken into account, the FedEE found.
As a result, the average employee in every EU country works well in excess of their basic contractual hours – mainly to cover for colleagues who are taking time off.
In countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands, more than one fifth of employees are absent from work at any given time, whilst in Sweden, work absence is a staggering 30 per cent.
This means that other staff have to work additional time to complete the tasks of their missing co-workers.
"The CIPD position is that the best approach to cutting long hours working is to challenge prevailing workplace culture. Employers should look at restructuring working time and offering flexible working to change the way in which people work," Ben Wilmott said.
"This approach, combined with improved performance management, can effectively shift the focus away from merely time spent at work and on to individual outputs instead."
Willmott pointed out that France is in the process of effectively phasing out its statutory 35-hour maximum working week because of concerns that it has proved an added drag on their economy, damaging competitiveness and contributing to high levels of unemployment.
"The tight labour market in the UK and demographic changes will put further pressure on employers to embrace the work-life balance agenda. It is this business necessity to become an employer of choice in a competitive labour market which will increasingly encourage organisations to curtail long-hours working and embrace greater flexibility," added Willmott.