At primary school it was all so simple. Three o’clock came around, the bell rang and we all rushed joyfully into the playground for our mummies to take us home and feed us biscuits. Home Time was clear, regular and there was no question of us staying late.
But then, alas, we grew up and were forced to get actual jobs and sometimes even a ‘career’, which suggests you make an effort not to swear at the boss, write your name on the toilet walls and get fired before lunch. It also requires you to attempt to keep your manager happy; and all too often this involves showing your commitment by staying later than anyone else. If you can summon the strength to bang out that last email at 9pm, the theory goes, then you’ve proven your value. Yet not all of us feel overjoyed at the prospect of taking up residence under our desks, so if Home Time is good, why do we feel so bad?
If you work in an office where, as the clock hits five pm, your boss leaps up to hand you your coat, shake your hand and sing you a cheerful song to bid you farewell, you’re lucky. Unfortunately, this scenario is rare outside of musicals. In reality, we’re often encouraged to compete with our colleagues, whether it’s to determine who can make the most noise about being so busy that they may suffocate under their many important tasks, or who can stay at work until everyone else has given up and gone home.
Given the many health problems associated with working overtime – stress, illness, workplace accidents and a non-existent sex drive – you’d think we’d do more to combat the UK’s long hours culture. Perhaps we’re too exhausted and depressed to bother.
So if our families or the NHS want someone to blame when we end up crying uncontrollably, hooked on pain killers, who’s responsible?
Rise up and rebel from this working hours hell, urges the government report Working long hours – Tackling a long hours culture. Staff should “contribute to cultural change particularly by valuing the contribution of those who choose not to work long hours”, it argues. So if you spot a colleague trying to sneak off when it’s officially home time, you should resist the urge to glare and tut loudly as they leave.
However, breaking this habit is extremely difficult without the backing of senior management; staging a mutiny in which all staff march out of the office as the clock strikes 5 is an unrealistic dream. On the civil service website, the government suggests that responsibility lies, at least in part, with the employer. “Are you setting a good example by managing your own working hours and constantly questioning the impact of your actions on others?” it asks. If your boss is still soldiering away at 7pm, it’s a brave soul who dares to leave their desk and go home.
The HR department should be crucial in encouraging the employer to avoid a culture of regular overtime. An occasional late night at work isn’t going to break up families and send us all into a spiral of depression, but given the evidence that long hours actually harm employee productivity rates, turning what should be a one-off into an everyday routine is an expensive and problematic move for businesses.
The CIPD’s report, Work-life balance (June 2006), says line managers are the main cause for long working hours. “The biggest obstacle to implementing good practice is in many cases the difficulty of persuading individual line managers to accept more flexible working arrangements,” it argues. “This resistance is often based on assumptions about the likely problems that flexibility will cause that turn out to be unfounded.”
So what’s the solution? A good start is to educate line managers into the benefits of allowing employees to go home before midnight. The HR department should keep a close watch on proceedings to ensure that it actually works. And if senior management dig in their heels, perhaps a mutiny isn’t such a bad idea after all.
By Sarah Fletcher