A clock-watching approach to tackling the issue of long working hours only perpetuates a 'presenteeism' culture that measures time served, regardless of productivity or efficiency, HR specialists have warned.
Initiatives by Britain's trade unions such as tomorrows 'work your proper hours' day are fruitless because they fail to acknowledge that working long hours is a classic sign of stress, and reducing stress will be key to improving the nation's work/life balance.
So says employment and health & safety consultancy, Croner, who warn that stress levels are soaring among employees who are putting in extra hours due to underlying workload demands, productivity issues and failure to take annual leave.
But rather than prescribe a rigid 9-5 culture, Croner advises employers to address work demands, working methods and ways of identifying and helping stressed out employees.
Employers also need to manage their annual leave policies more effectively to combat a massive 'holiday debt' owed to UK workers.
Employees lose up to £14.5 billion in unclaimed holidays each year, with one in three workers not taking their full holiday entitlement, according to Croner research carried out last December.
Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, says: "While Work Your Proper Hours Day raises awareness of the unpaid overtime problem, it's not really helping employers to manage it. From an employer's point of view, long hours are not necessarily productive hours and they need to assess whether a presenteeism culture, unproductive working methods, and stress are playing a part in this.
"A classic sign of stress is when an individual starts coming into work very early or working very late. However, the standard of their work may still be suffering, so they work even longer hours to compensate.
"But leaving work on time everyday, as the TUC recommends, won't help change anyone's life if they're still stressing about their workload when they get home.
"Employers should be addressing the root cause of the long hours culture - and meeting their 'duty of care' to employees - by looking out for the signs of stress and taking action to reduce its cause."
Other practical steps could include individual meetings with employees to identify where their workload could be reduced or working methods improved to help them leave work at a reasonable time.
"While it's reasonable for an employer to expect some degree of flexibility during a particularly busy period, employees shouldn't feel they are on their own, and should feel able to talk to their manager if they have too much work or are struggling to cope," Richard Smith added.
"Rather than restricting working hours, better management and monitoring of workloads and stress levels should naturally help bring down the number of hours worked."