The Long Work Hours Culture

Gail Kinman welcomes an exhaustive overview of lengthy labours and their impacts on health

March 5, 2009

As the saying beloved of exhausted employees goes, "They lied... hard work has killed lots of people."

The fact that Britons work longer hours than people in any other European Union state is widely quoted. The number working more than 48 hours a week has more than doubled in the past ten years, with one in six workers regularly putting in more than 60 hours. People work long hours for many reasons: some do so grudgingly out of economic necessity or in response to organisational pressure; others willingly, because they are passionate about their work or see it as a worthwhile investment for their career. Nonetheless, research findings suggest that the majority of employees wish to work fewer hours, and that most children would be prepared to sacrifice material benefits if their parents spent more time with them.

Members of the European Parliament recently voted to scrap the UK's opt-out from the Working Time Directive. They argue that restricting working hours improves the health of employees, reduces accidents caused by exhaustion and work-related stress, and enhances people's work-life balance.

Ending the opt-out is, however, opposed by the UK Government and business leaders alike. The Working Time Directive is also resisted by some workers whose wellbeing it was designed to protect: junior doctors argue, with good reason, that curtailing their hours limits training opportunities and compromises their future job performance.

Clear, unambiguous evidence of the negative effects of long working hours has not always been forthcoming, so a comprehensive overview of up-to-date research is long overdue: why do people work long hours, and what is the impact on their wellbeing, family relationships and job performance? Written by experts working in six countries, this edited volume aims to address these questions. Some chapters in the collection are based on reviews of the literature, while others are more data-driven.

The causes and consequences of working long hours are explored along with the strategies that can be utilised to reduce the negative effects. The growing intrusion of work into family life is discussed and its implications for marital relationships are considered.

Globalisation, the authors argue, is a key factor in increasing the pressure on companies to decrease their labour force and increase workloads. The rise in consumerism and the decline of trade union power are also believed to have contributed to the intensification of work.

Although new mobile technologies provide greater opportunities for flexible working, they are also cited as key facilitators of workaholism in vulnerable employees. A chapter by Gayle Porter and Jamie L. Perry describes the case of a senior manager challenged to do without his mobile devices for one week. He lasted less than two days before he "tearfully gave up", having experienced panic attacks and aural hallucinations of his absent phone ringing.

The book provides strong evidence that long working hours are associated with a range of physical and psychological problems as well as strains experienced at home. It concludes, however, that employees' motives for working long hours and their attitudes are important moderators of this relationship.

A distinction is made between passion for one's job, which is believed to be an important indicator of wellbeing, job satisfaction and organisational citizenship behaviours, and an addiction to work that is likely to have more pathological outcomes.

A novel contribution by Constance Noonan Hadley draws a parallel between loving one's job and romantic love - both are not entirely rational and involve passion, intimacy and commitment. The authors argue that, like romantic love, "job love" fosters intense fulfillment, excitement and feelings of connection, but those in love with their work also risk rejection, loss of self-esteem and obsession leading to disengagement with other areas of life.

Several explanatory theories of workaholism that draw on biological, behavioural, emotional, cognitive, motivational and social-system perspectives are considered. As there are many reasons why people become workaholics, it is concluded that no single theory or therapeutic approach is likely to be successful in explaining or treating it.

A chapter by Rebecca Burwell and Charles P. Chen examines the options available for treating workaholic symptoms. The effectiveness of individual therapeutic strategies is reviewed, as well as workplace interventions such as increased flexibility and enhanced management training to identify and address "unhealthy" obsessions with work. It is concluded that interventions based on positive psychology that aim to enhance positive emotions by expanded opportunities for freedom and recreation are likely to be particularly beneficial. The aim is to achieve a state where one's job is life-enriching rather than all-consuming.

This book challenges the UK's deeply embedded cultural determination to see long work hours as synonymous with productivity and efficiency. Ensuring adequate opportunities for recuperation from job demands during leisure time can only benefit individuals and organisations.

The Long Work Hours Culture: Causes, Consequences and Choices

Edited by Ronald J. Burke and Cary L. Cooper

Emerald Group, 188pp, £45.00

ISBN 9781848550384

Published 11 September 2008

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