Last reviewed 5 September 2018

A research survey carried out by the CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) asked workers if they felt they were working too many hours. The survey respondents typically said that they were working five hours a week more than they would like to. As the length of the working week is arguably an arbitrary concept anyway, if workers worked fewer hours, while being encouraged to achieve the same level of work, would this not be a win for our work-life balance and the need to save money on salaries, asks Gudrun Limbrick.

How many hours should workers be working?

The UK Working Lives Survey 2018 saw 6000 UK workers answer questions about seven dimensions of working life — pay and benefits; terms of employment; work-life balance; health and wellbeing; social support and cohesion; voice and representation; and job design and the nature of work. As part of the work-life balance section, workers were asked how many hours they would “freely choose to work while taking into account the need to earn your living”. Sixty-three per cent said they would like to reduce their hours, 16% said that they would choose to work five hours less than they do (the median answer), 21% said between 5 and 10 hours and 26% said more than 10 hours.

The median number of working hours reported by the survey respondents was 37 per week. This figure means that UK workers are tending to work a longer week than those in the rest of Europe. And the commute to and from work adds, on average, a further 3 hours and 45 minutes a week onto the total.

The ideal length of the working week is theoretically based on the following.

  • The period of time the worker needs to work to earn a sufficient income.

  • The time which allows for sufficient work to take place to meet the company’s needs and those of the purchasers.

  • The number of hours to make effective use of the work premises, ie makes enough use of the premises to make them financially viable.

  • The time which enables the workers (and those managing/supervising them) to have sufficient time away from work.

Where did the working week come from?

Discussions about the length of the working week are particularly interesting as the concept is based more on short tradition than on anything more tangible. The success of industrialisation in the 19th century was largely based on workers working very long hours for very low wages and few employment rights. As the century progressed, there was great clamour for more rights but it was not until the first decades of the 20th century that a shorter, fixed working week became the standard along with a standardised expectation of the number of hours to be worked each day. The working week was initially set at around 48 hours, and then scaled down to 40 hours. Henry Ford in the USA was said to have been instrumental in this change in 1914. The development of the unionisation of workers gradually brought the number of hours down and the number of rights up as the 20th century progressed.

So the working week was not based on research about the effectiveness of workers, or calculations about the average productivity needed to keep a company profitable, and it was certainly not based on what creates the optimum work-life balance. Instead, it was a slow process of negotiation, industrial action and legal reform to leave behind utterly intolerable conditions and change it to something which could be accepted by most parties. With stronger unionisation back then, could we now, just as easily, have had a three-day working week? Or with Governments less willing to support workers, could we now have a 50-hour working week? Our 37 hours formed of roughly five days of eight hours is a relatively random concept, but almost universally accepted as the norm.

The French experience

In 2000, the French government decided to reduce the working week from 39 hours down to 35 hours — seven hours a day for five days. The legislation did not outlaw longer working weeks but set the time beyond which workers would be entitled to overtime. The idea behind this was twofold.

  1. It was thought that by reducing the number of hours each individual worker worked, companies would need to hire more people and so unemployment levels would fall.

  2. To enable workers to have a better work-life balance.

Fans of the 35-hour cap say that it is essential for the work-life balance of workers. Opponents say that it has not actually reduced the working week (Eurostat figures put the average at 40.4 hours in 2015 which means that companies are paying 4.4 hours as overtime) and say that recruitment has not increased but rather that workers have had to become more productive.

Can the working week be shortened?

Despite, or perhaps fuelled by, the ongoing arguments about the success of the French experience, there is still a demand for shorter working weeks. For companies it could reduce the salaries bill, or attract more potential workers. For workers, as the CIPD research reported, there is a demand for a better work-life balance.

An employer cannot simply change everyone’s contracts to a shorter working week with an associated cut in pay. Employees have to agree to any such change in their contracts and if such a change is forced upon them, they would have a right to take the matter to an employment tribunal. An employer could experiment with such a change without a pay cut but would need to be confident that productivity would rise to ensure that the change did not mean a big financial loss. It is for these reasons that we simply do not see significant changes in our working week in individual companies or sectors — more often than not, neither employers nor employees can afford it in the short term.

On a bigger scale, however, surely slow, gradual change is inevitable. Developments in technology, communications, transport and the like means that we are all far more productive than we used to be. The cotton mills of 19th century Manchester, for example, were so unproductive and uneconomic, relatively speaking, that they arguably were not viable without large numbers of workers working 40 or more hours a week. These days, people can achieve unimaginable work in just an hour at a computer.

It seems likely that UK workers will put more and more pressure on employers to have a better work-life balance. Whereas we used to have to work long hours in order to pay the bills, far more of us are able to flip our priorities because we want work to fit in around the rest of our lives rather than try to squeeze home life, social life and outside interests around the time we spend at work. Change in the working week has to be slow, by its very nature, but it seems likely to be inevitable eventually.