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Working longer is costing us all

Working longer is costing us all

Did you enjoy national “leave work on time day” on September 25th? No, neither did I, I was probably too busy working to hear about it.

As the UK tries to emerge from recession and GDP is finally turning a corner, the focus is starting to shift to whether we work too hard in the UK to the detriment of our businesses.

“Lunch is for wimps”, the famous quote from Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’, perfectly  reflected the corporate culture of the high octane finance world of the 1980s. Things have changed, these days you are most likely to hear your manager telling you to work smarter, not harder as the focus shifts to boosting profits with the least amount of effort.

Instead of skipping lunch, the idea is to create “systems” and “processes” so streamlined as to give us time to go for a leisurely lunch, and, if you work at Google, an afternoon nap in one of their infamous sleep pods.

[France bans shops from opening late]

Longer for less

The trouble is, the UK is failing to implement the smarter, not harder mantra and we are working as hard as we ever did.

To add insult to injury, we are also less productive than the French – so each of us who slave away for hours in the office, while the French enjoy their 35-hour weeks, we end up producing less than our peers the other side of the Channel. So, is it time to slash our working hours?

A new report from the New Economics Foundation has suggested that a 30-hour working week would not only make us healthier and happier, but it could also help the environment. But could it also make us more productive?

As far back as 1998, then Chancellor Gordon Brown mentioned the UK’s dismal productivity record at a conference organised by the Confederation of British Industry.

Things haven’t changed much since then, the UK‘s productivity per capita – a measure of how much money is created per person in a year – was $32,540 in 2012, in France it was $34,240 and in Germany it was $37,479. The US is well out in the lead where it is a whopping $43,063 – according to the World Bank.

Would working less help?

The UK is fast-becoming a country of long-hours and low wages, as wage growth has stagnated since the financial crisis in 2008.

We earn less than some of our European counterparts, have smaller pension pots and we get fewer holidays – can we be blamed for being sluggish in the office?

It’s easy to see why low wages can make people less motivated, as the saying goes: if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys. Imagine getting paid the same wage but only being required to work 30 hours.

Perhaps you would forego that long water cooler chat, or you would only use the internet for work-related matters, not to book your next holiday, check out the latest sports results, look at wedding venues or buy that pair of shoes, imagine what you could get done…

If time really was a time was a premium maybe those unproductive and overly long and boring meetings would be cut short so we could all get to work? 

Another idea, would be to spend 30 hours a week in the office, and then say, another 5 or 6 on training or learning new skills, I believe this could dramatically boost productivity, as often finding the time for training is what holds us back from professional development.

A report from the European Industrial Relations Observatory from 1998 partly blamed the UK’s productivity lag on our companies being too small to manage economies of scale, a lack of investment, particularly in manufacturing, and having too many uninspiring managers.

For some, it would be easy to argue that things haven’t changed since then. We are still overburdened with multiple layers of management, think of the NHS, and compared to countries like Germany and Japan we under-invest in the highly productive industrial sector.

Unfortunately, we are still a small country, so the point about our small companies is unlikely to leave us any time soon.

If someone suggested in 2013 that working less was actually more productive, I doubt there would be any trouble testing this theory, as a chance to skip work sounds too good to be true.

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Kathleen Brooks is author of Kathleen Brooks on Forex, published by Harriman House.