Working longer = more productive?

21st of July 2017
Working longer = more productive?

Long hours at the grindstone may turn our brains to mush but they can also leave us feeling all warm and virtuous and not a little sniffy about others who appear not to share our work ethic. But for all that, surveys show that we are labouring under an illusion if we believe we are necessarily any more productive, writes Hartley Milner.

The French delight in their laid-back café culture, and are frequently lampooned for seemingly spending so much of the working day celebrating it.

We are all familiar with the cliché…tables pitched out on sunny pavement patios where office workers gather to eke out their two-hour lunch breaks sipping pastis while animatedly putting the world to rights. And they work just 35 hours per week, have five weeks annual vacation and get 11 public holidays a year, don’t they?

Well, as is frequently the case with these things, the facts debunk the myth. It is true France is the only EU state to legislate for a 35-hour week. But this is simply a threshold beyond which paid overtime or rest days kick in, and it applies only to blue-collar workers. Even so, more than 50 per cent of artisans put in overtime each year at rates fixed by collective agreement.

The hours put in by white-collar workers are not clocked. Like professionals in the USA, most work until their tasks are done. But unlike in the USA, French professionals are compensated for the hours they work beyond 35 with rest days, which are negotiated on a company-by-company basis.

All together, the French put in on average around 40 hours a week. As for those lingering lunch breaks, most workers say they take little more than 45 minutes, nearly always spent at a café or restaurant. Going out for meals is a sacred ritual in France, so it is rare to find employees sitting at their computer screens working with one hand and eating a croque-monsieur with the other.

France tops the league for paid leave in the EU at 25 days a year, along with Sweden and Denmark. However it only comes mid-table for the number of paid public holidays, with Spain having the most at 14.

The French feel they have achieved the right work-life balance after many years of campaigning for fairer labour laws. And recently they won a further concession when awarded the legal right to avoid checking work emails out-of-hours.

For all this, our Gallic cousins still work far fewer hours than most other developed nations (1,473 per year on average) yet are just two places off making the productivity top 10. Compared to British workers, they are €2.92 an hour more productive while putting in 204 fewer hours per year.
In the UK, almost four million employees labour for at least 48 hours a week… the longest in Europe.

Managers and professional staff work the most hours, with one in 25 putting in 60-hour weeks, way over the 48 hours maximum set out in an EU working time directive. The average working week is now 43.6 hours against 40.3 hours for the rest of Europe. What’s more, last year in the UK more than five million people gave their employers €38.1 billion worth of free labour by doing unpaid overtime.

And pressurised working is having a negative effect on motivation, turnover and absence levels within the workplace. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that 40 per cent of mental health-related absence is linked to work-induced stress and anxiety. The average cost of absence was €675 per employee in 2016 and work-related stress is costing Britain 10.4 million working days every year.

Despite Britain’s long-hours culture, output per hour worked is 22.2 per cent lower than that of the US, 22.7 per cent lower than in France and 26.7 per cent lower than in Germany, according to the latest figures from the ONS. Italy has seen no productivity growth since the turn of the millennium but still has a 10 per cent higher output. Britain now has a productivity gap of 16.6 per cent with the other six members of the G7 group of nations, the biggest margin since records began in the early 1990s.

Shortest hours

B2B comparison site Expert Market crunched GDP data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and found that of the 10 countries with the highest GDP, seven of those (Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden) also make the top 10 list for the shortest hours worked per employee.

The top 10 most productive countries (GDP divided by hours worked) are:

1. Luxembourg: 1,643 average annual hours with €51.89 hourly productivity.
2. Norway: 1,427 average annual hours with €41.27 hourly productivity.
3. Australia: 1,664.2 average annual hours with €33.84 hourly productivity.
4. Switzerland: 1,568.2 average annual hours with €32.19 hourly productivity.
5. Netherlands: 1,425 average annual hours with €32.19 hourly productivity.
6. Germany: 1,371 average annual hours with €29.46 hourly productivity.
7. Denmark: 1,436 average annual hours with €27.41 hourly productivity.
8. United States: 1,789 average annual hours with €26.86 hourly productivity.
9. Ireland: 1,821.26 average annual hours with €26.25 hourly productivity.
10. Sweden: 1,609 average annual hours with €25.64 hourly productivity.

The UK is well off the chart, coming in at 16th in the world league of most productive nations, with 1,677 average annual hours worked and just €21.16 per hour productivity. Where once it was at roughly two per cent per annum, productivity now sits at virtually zero.

So you could excuse the Brits for looking enviously across the Channel and asking “why can’t we, too, work sane hours while reaping the benefits of high productivity…what’s gone wrong?” Earlier this year, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane cited the UK’s many mediocre and under-performing companies offsetting the impact of innovative enterprises and dragging down the general level of productivity.

But according to Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, the blame rests squarely on the pressures managers are under.

“Our recent research highlighted the fact that the average manager in the UK works an extra 29 days over the course of a year,” she said. “Over half of managers say their working hours have a bad effect on their stress levels, which is having a disastrous impact on the nation’s productivity.

“Recent reforms announced by the government to transform attitudes of mental health in the workplace are a step in the right direction, but the reality is we all have a role to play in improving the wellbeing of the UK’s workforce. Tackling the ‘always on’ culture of constantly checking emails on smartphones and tablets out of office hours, for instance, is extremely important.

“Good, skilled managers know that they need to switch off and allow their employees to do the same. Helping employees strike the necessary work-life balance must be a priority for both employers and the government in facing up to the challenge of improving workplace stress. Doing so will not only help improve the performance and happiness of the UK’s workforce, it will also be crucial in closing the country’s chronic productivity gap.”

So, with some of the strongest economies in the world also boasting the shortest average working hours, could working fewer hours raise the productivity of stragglers such as Britain?

Cutting hours

Sweden, the world’s 10th most productive country, has just completed a two-year trial at a Gothenburg elderly people’s home, with mixed results. Staff saw their hours cut from eight to six a day for the same pay.

And yes, early findings of the trial show that staff at Svartedalen nursing home felt happier and healthier, leading to reduced sick leave and absenteeism, and patient care improved. The big fly in the ointment was that the home was forced to hire 17 extra staff at a cost of €1.2 million.

So the city has dropped plans to make the scheme permanent. “It’s associated with higher costs, absolutely,” said Daniel Bernmar, the local councillor responsible for elderly care and a leading advocate of a six-hour working day. “It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”

Elsewhere in Gothenburg, mechanics at Toyota service centres have worked six-hour days on full pay for nearly 15 years and have never looked back. Customers were unhappy with the long waiting times while technicians were stressed out and making mistakes. The 36 staff switched from a 7am-4pm day to working two six-hour shifts, starting at 6am and the other at noon, with fewer and shorter breaks.

“Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” said managing director Martin Banck. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs…everyone is happy. Profits have risen by 25 per cent.”

And Daniel Bernmar argues that the Gothenburg experiment still proved successful “from many points of view”, by creating extra jobs for nurses in the city, reducing sick pay costs and fuelling the global debate about work culture.


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