Let's bring back the weekend

June 8, 2001

Michael White says it's time we all took a stand against the long-hours culture.

For the past two decades, a long-hours culture has pervaded most areas of working life in Britain, including higher education, where many have experience of draining work weeks and abbreviated weekends. The culture of overwork, stress and long hours must be recognised as a national problem that deserves a critical analysis and political debate.

What is new, and perhaps hopeful, is research showing that people are tiring of it, none more so than the managerial-professional classes (who outstay all other groups at work, except farmers).

A simple explanation for this would be that we work longer hours than before. The average hours of men in professional jobs were fairly stable over the 1990s. Women's rose but not by much. The aggravation seems to be that the stress of long hours is compounded by rising work pressures and flagging morale. But where do the pressures come from?

For professionals used to autonomy, they seem to come from outside. The imposed deadline is most toilsome, especially if the task seems unproductive and ill-conceived. As the market model and its variants have become more dominant, professional work has become more controlled by the dictates of performance measurement. Shackling the public service is somehow believed to empower the consumer. We need a continuing critique of this tendency and its intellectually shaky foundations or the public professions will face more degradation of their experience of work.

Yet blaming the external systems and structures - the "other fellow" - is as one-sided as it is easy. The long-hours culture is made possible by people who love their work to the point of sacrifice. As a reason for working long hours, "work interest" is more common than the desire for financial reward, and three times as common as desire for promotion.

To criticise this possibly altruistic behaviour may seem dangerous in practical as well as moral terms. Reflect, though, on the implications of the culture these self-driven workers sustain, the changes they delay and the impositions they make possible. Consider that the workloads they normalise may be imposed on others who would prefer more balanced and varied lives. Consider, especially, whether we will ever create organisations where women's careers are fully equal to men's while these norms continue.

Perhaps a turning point is near, signalled less by rising dissatisfaction with workloads than by declining motivation and commitment. Employers are sensitive to difficulties of recruitment and retention, especially among highly qualified and skilled people. The market sector, at least, is also beginning to understand that not all creative and productive people are workaholics, or vice versa.

Until now, employers have recruited by offering bigger financial packages, but many are now considering a more balanced approach. This would accommodate diversity in motivations and values and so draw on a wider pool of talent. It would also begin to take seriously the idea of feminised organisations, with shorter and more flexible hours, where women and men could take part on equal terms. Public services in general cannot match the private sector's financial rewards, but they could and should lead in these kinds of innovations.

The hours people work and the pressures and controls they work under have a great bearing on national quality of life. Educators and researchers have a responsibility to bring evidence and critical awareness to public debates on these issues. They can also address the issues in their institutions and in their own professional conduct.

Michael White is principal research fellow, Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster. He is co-director of research under the ESRC's Future of Work Research Programme and he will help present the results at the ACAS National Conference in Harrogate on June 14.

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