Britain’s Working Time Crisis

Britain's workers now work longer than any others in the EU, as a century's worth of progress on working hours unravels. The only way to reverse the trend is to strengthen workers' rights.

Elon Musk was once reported to have said ‘no matter how hard you work, someone else is working harder.’ This may be true of the UK workforce from a productivity perspective, but it seems that no matter how many hours we work, no one else is working longer.

Data from April shows that, on average, full-time UK workers tote up the highest number of hours a week when compared to their EU counterparts. This fact begs a couple of questions: how has this discrepancy arisen when maximum working hours are dictated by the EU? And do we really need to be working so much?

The Working Time Directive (WTD) establishes minimum health and safety standards for EU workers. The legislation boasts a portfolio of labour protections, from holiday pay to paid rest breaks, and sets a maximum average working week of 48-hour (calculated over an extended period). But, crucially, the Directive also affords Member States the option to include a waiver in their national legislation. This means workers can voluntarily opt-out of this weekly maximum.

The waiver initially ignited intense opposition from the European Parliament, and an overwhelming majority of EU countries have not included the opt-out in their national legislation. Unsurprisingly the UK, the opt-out’s greatest proponent, chose to incorporate it into the Working Time Regulations (WTR).

While managers and self-employed professionals consistently top the working hours charts, the opt-out poses a glaringly obvious dilemma for workers on the lowest wages. While working on minimum wage as a waitress, I had working weeks that breached the maximum. Topping up a less-than-£8 hourly wage in London is crucial for far too many people – especially when the employer’s expectation is that you take the overtime you are offered and be thankful for it. In the precarious role of a worker, scrapping a bit of free time is more appealing than getting scrapped yourself.

These economic and job security considerations can shift a worker’s ‘voluntary’ decision to sign an opt-out agreement outside the realm of autonomy. The measures needed to eradicate this shift go without saying: raising wages, strengthening job security and employment law regulation. Eliminate the need to work more than eight hours a day. Simple, but perhaps slightly utopian given the current state of affairs. 

Of course, from a productivity-orientated capitalist standpoint, it’s not the hours you work that count but the work that you do in those hours. This premise throws a culture of long working hours into the depths of disrepute. Danish workers put in four hours less work a week than the British, and yet productivity is 23.5% higher per hour.

Long hours go hand in hand with stress. They also bring a lack of sleep, exercise and balanced meals to the party, with employees hard pressed to find time to pursue the antidotes to stress. A study this year revealed that ‘presenteeism’ is on the rise, with 40% of 32,000 respondents admitting to coming into work despite physical or mental health problems. A separate poll revealed that alarming proportions of employees would not mention mental health issues to their boss. Surely, in a culture where calling in sick is feared and half of commuters check their work emails on the train, we have entered a vicious cycle of poor mental health and low productivity. A lose-lose situation.

I recently started a four-day week role without seeing my output suffer. In fact, I feel more focused and motivated to tackle individual tasks separately rather than leaving countless incomplete ‘to-dos’ to pile up over the never-ending working week. And my experience is not unique. Last year, 240 employees at New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian embarked on an eight-week trial of a four-day week on full-time pay, a prospect which would have many a CEO sweating behind the necktie. Not only did its founder report benefits to employee wellbeing, he also noted a 20% increase in productivity and a hike in profits. And take Edward Heath’s three-day working week experiment in 1973. Productivity loss was forecasted at a proportionate 40%, but in reality only took a hit of somewhere between 10 and 20%.

But the justifications for reducing working hours shouldn’t be purely productivity centric. A new report commissioned by the Labour party and written by Lord Skidelsky opines that it should be a desirable outcome in a progressive society in and of itself. Victories in the working hours realm have been charted over the last couple of centuries yet seem to have hit a dead end in recent years. However, this might be about to change – Labour’s most recent party conference voted in favour of a four-day week resolution.

But that isn’t the only Labour policy that matters when it comes to shortening working time. The party’s commitment to introducing meaningful collective bargaining legislation could be just as important. Our Nordic neighbours have what Eurofound class as a ‘negotiated working time regime’, with collective bargaining fuelling sectoral or company-level maximum working times. Undeniably born from the relatively weak trade union tradition in post-Thatcher Britain, the UK is the only EU country with a ‘unilateral working time regime’, with rare deviation from what is set out by the employer in an employment contract. As there are insufficient mechanisms to drive progression from the bottom, and the UK’s embedded long hours culture does not provide fertile ground for employer-level progression, the state must take the reins.

Take Sweden for example. Their national law contains a no excuses 48-hour average weekly working maximum and their government has actively trialled shorter working weeks for public sector staff. The result has been the gradual normalisation of six hour working days, with parents often leaving work in time for the school run.

Skidelsky’s report makes clear the necessity of policy intervention. He stresses the need for government to set a precedent with public sector working hours, aiming for a 35-hour working week norm over the next ten years. Through a combination of automation training, a public sector job guarantee scheme, increased investment and the hiking up of minimum wages, he sees this as an attainable objective. Abolishing the opt-out is a crucial rung on this ladder.

It’s a critical time to be having these discussions. A recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) case finetuned the WTD’s wording to place an obligation on member states to ensure that employers keep detailed evidence of daily working hours in a bid to improve enforcement of maximum working hours. However, it is unclear the effect that this enhanced protection, along with future unforeseeable ECJ judgments (to which we would not be bound), may have for Britain’s workers post-Brexit.

Boris Johnson wrote to Donald Tusk in August stating that post-Brexit UK labour laws and regulations will potentially diverge from those of the EU. Clearly, his intention is not to make them stronger. While giving evidence to a select committee in 2016, Johnson condemned the WTD as ‘far too expensive’ and ‘not ideally tailored to the needs of this economy’. Two years earlier, he labelled the weight of EU employment regulation as ‘back-breaking’.

Without the Working Time Directive we would lose the somewhat frayed safety net of the right to refuse to work above the 48-hour maximum. But even if the Regulations are not scrapped post-Brexit, working time rights are insufficient. If this election produces another government wholly unconcerned about the problems of worsening conditions at work, we risk being stuck in system of regulation that allows working hours to snowball indefinitely. Action needs to be taken, and it needs to be taken soon.