Hot under the collar

June 21, 1996

Health and family life are being damaged by workaholic cultures and the trend towards short-term contracts and freelance working. Cary Cooper looks at the feel-bad factors.

Every decade this century has brought its own unique changes to our working environment. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson talked about the "white heat of technology" transforming our lives, producing the 20-hour week. New technology was going to be responsible for a "leisure age" allowing us to pursue our dreams, even midweek.

But instead the 1970s brought unrest and conflict, a workplace not knowing what it was going to produce or how it was going to do it. Studs Terkel's book, Working, summed it up: "Work is by its very nature about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all, about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

Then came the 1980s, the "enterprise culture", with people working longer and harder to achieve individual success and material rewards. We had privatisations, process re-engineering (Americanised term for "reorganisation"), mergers and acquisitions, strategic alliances, joint ventures and the like, transforming workplaces into hot-house, free-market environments. In the short term, the approach improved our economic competitiveness in international markets - but the strains started to show. "Stress" joined "junk bonds", "software packages" and "downsizing" in the modern business vocabulary - and its costs in the workplace mounted. A few 1980s statistics suffice: mental illness was responsible for 80 million lost working days annually, at a cost to industry of about Pounds 3.7 billion; 35 million working days were lost annually through coronary heart disease and strokes, costing the average United Kingdom organisation Pounds 2.5 million; eight million working days were lost through alcohol and drink-related disease costing about Pounds 1.3 billion.

So what have the 1990s brought us, and where is the workplace of the future heading? The early years of the decade were dominated by the effects of the recession and efforts to get out of it. Organisations "downsized", "de-layered", "flattened", "right-sized" or whatever euphemism you care to use to massage the hard reality of job losses. There are fewer people at work, doing more and feeling extremely job insecure. New technology, rather than being our saviour, has added the burden of information overload as well as accelerating the pace of work as a greater speed of response (for example, faxes, email) becomes the standard business expectation. In addition, job insecurity is creating a climate of presenteeism, as individuals vie to demonstrate "organisational commitment" in an effort to avoid the second or third tranche of redundancies. Many work organisations are creating "workaholic cultures", where hours of work equate in employees minds to productivity and even in some curious but unproven way, to efficiency.

A recent survey by Austin Knight of a million white-collar workers from 22 large UK organisations found that although three-quarters of employees sampled had contracted hours of between 35 and 37 hours a week, two-thirds regularly work more than 40 hours and a quarter more than 50 hours a week. Seventy-six per cent said that continually working long hours had adversely affected their physical health and 47 per cent admitted their families suffered from their absence. Yet less than a third would "stand up to their boss to improve their family time". (Ironically, 90 per cent of employers surveyed see long hours as a problem in terms of reduced performance and lowered morale.) The Institute of Management in its recent UK survey, Survival of the fittest, found that 81 per cent of 1,300 middle to senior managers "often or always" work longer than their official hours. Fifty-five per cent "always" work extra hours; 54 per cent "often or always" work in the evenings; and 36 per cent "often or always" work at weekends. The institute concludes that "longer working hours do not necessarily result in enhanced productivity. Excessive hours may reduce an individual's efficiency and effectiveness and consequently have a negative impact on the organisation." This was backed by the independent think-tank Demos, whose 1995 report Time squeeze found that 25 per cent of British male employees work more than 48 hours a week; a fifth of all manual workers work more than 50 hours; one in eight managers work more than 60-hour weeks and seven out of ten British workers want to work a 40-hour week, but only three out of ten do.

There is a price to pay - and it is paid at home; personal relationships are wrecked by our culture of long working days. The BT Forum's report on the Cost of communication breakdown shows that by 1991 the UK had the highest divorce rate in Europe with over 171,000 divorces. Between 1961 and 1991 the proportion of people living in one-parent families increased four-fold and by 2000 the UK will have three million children and young people growing up in step-families. The fact that nearly two out of three couples are working as two-earner couples makes long working hours an important social as well as organisational issue.

But do the long working hours and job insecurity cultures fully explain the so-called "feel bad" factor, at a time when the UK has, in contrast to many of its European competitors, positive economic indicators? Or is something more insidious going on?

The recent IM report may provide some answers. Although most UK managers found their work stressful, the hours long and the demands of their jobs on their personal relationships intrusive, their overriding anxiety concerned the future nature of work. While 72 per cent of managers perceive themselves to be "core employees", a large minority consider themselves to be on a short-term contract or part-timers or selling their services to organisations. In addition, more than 40 per cent of them "do not feel in control of their future career development" (58 per cent of middle managers - the next generation of senior executives). Only 25 per cent "expect their next move to be a promotion within their existing organisation", while nearly 30 per cent see their future elsewhere. One in four "thought it highly likely they would be responsible for a dispersed workforce supported by IT by the year 2000" - a move toward the "virtual organisation".

The nature of our work environments, therefore, seems to be changing dramatically. Ever more organisations are implementing the dreaded words "outsourcing", "market-testing", "interim management" and the like, which effectively means many more of us will be selling our services to organisations on a freelance or short-term contract basis - blue collar, white collar, managerial, and professional temps. And this trend is growing faster in the UK than any other industrialised country, partially, I suspect, because the natural extension of privatising the public sector is privatising the private sector. More than one in eight British workers is self-employed, and part-time working and short-term contracts are growing faster than permanent full-time work. The number of men in part-time jobs has nearly doubled in the past decade, while fewer women (under 4.5 per cent) and more men (nearly 10.5 per cent) are unemployed. Not only are we moving out of manufacturing industries, but also the number of people employed by firms of more than 500 employees has slumped to just over a third of the employed population.

The trend towards a "contract or freelance culture" is likely to have several consequences. More people will work from home, as sophisticated IT helps create and support the "virtual organisation". With two out of three families two-earner or dual-career, the problem of who plays what role in the family, and the conflicts surrounding work and domestic space, will upset an already delicate work-home balance. If employers increasingly look for and recruit flexible workers, the likelihood is that more women will be employed, displacing men as the main breadwinner. Women have throughout their careers worked part-time or on short-term contracts, whereas men have not. For example, in 1984 there were more than four million women in part-time work, but only 570,000 men. By 1994, there were five million women and 990,000 men in part-time work. In order for women to pursue families as well as careers/jobs, a lot more women than men have had discontinuous careers.

Finally, those likely to survive the "new millennium" or "virtual organisation" will need some of the following skills: be able to diagnose their abilities, know where to get appropriate training in deficient skills, be able to market themselves to organisations professionally, know how to network, have well-developed interpersonal skills, tolerate ambiguity and a certain level of insecurity and be able to manage time efficiently and prioritise work and family issues. Will this trend toward stable insecurity, freelance working and virtual organisational life continue? I do not know. Individuals may question their need to commit to organisations that do not commit to them. Converting the "feel bad" to "feel good" is not simply a matter of higher salaries or greater personal rewards or a penny off income tax. Rather it involves quality of life issues, like workloads, hours of work, family time, control over one's career and some sense of job security. It is important for the future of an effective and less stressful work environment that organisations begin to think about their structures, policies and working practices with regard to their employees.

As Alastair Mant suggested in The Rise and Fall of the British Manager, "a great deal of what wants doing in this naughty world seems to be reasonably obvious to men and women of goodwill and common sense everywhere. But we have not, it seems, mastered the trick of creating the intervening institutions that help us to get things done I We rush headlong from analysis to action, without stopping en route to build sound constitutional structures to support our endeavours". We must view employees as individuals who have needs, personalities and commitments outside organisational life, and begin to realise (and put into practice) our intuitive feeling that the performance, efficiency and satisfaction of an employee is linked to total life experience. As John Ruskin said in 1871, "in order that people may be happy in their work, these things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it".

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology at the Manchester School of Management, and a pro-vice chancellor of the UMIST.

Downsizing, teleworking, hamburger flipper economies, Dinkies ... a new vocabulary signalling that work and the family - two issues central to our lives - are undergoing radical transformation. What will they look like in 2000? It is a question likely to be at the heart of the forthcoming election as academic research is plundered by politicians of all parties in pursuit of credible answers.

This week Perspective launches its summer series into the future of work and the family. If you would like to contribute your ideas, write to The THES, Summer Series, Admiral House,66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.Fax: 0171-782 3300. Email:

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