Breaking the Long Hours Culture

Kodz J, Kersley B, Strebler M T, O’Regan S
Report 352, Institute for Employment Studies, December 1998

research supported by the IES Research Networks

British employees work some of the longest hours in Europe. A high proportion of UK workers work more than ten hours over and above their contracted hours. This is not an occasional effort to cope with emergencies or peak periods, but rather a regular event.

The European Community’s Working Time Directive is focusing attention on the issue of long hours. However, the fundamental business issue is not how best to circumvent the directive. Rather it is to understand the causes of long hours, note their consequences, and devise policies to ameliorate them.

Working hours

National data shows that over a quarter of UK full-time employees work in excess of 48 hours per week, ie longer than the Working Time Directive weekly working hours limit (Labour Force Survey, 1997).

Perceptions about the number of hours which constitute long hours vary according to the type of work and what is considered the norm within the particular place of work. In some organisations, employees are reportedly working 100 hours per week or more. Furthermore, many employers do not know how many hours their employees are working. However, our research in general suggests that consistently working an extra ten or more hours per week over and above contracted hours, is considered to be long hours in most organisations.

Men are more likely to work longer hours than women, but this overall trend disguises differences by occupation. Women’s hours are increasing as more women are entering more senior positions. A further point highlighted by the IES research is that women with dependants are much less likely to work long hours, than men living with children or a dependent adult.

The types of sectors and occupations where long hours are a particular problem include plant and machine operatives in manufacturing, transport and communi-cation workers, managers and professionals.

Reasons for working long hours

The main reasons for working long hours identified by the research are:

  • work pressure: arising from heavier workloads, increasingly demanding customers (in particular increased expectation of 24 hours-a-day service), greater competition, fewer staff and tighter budgets.
  • work organisation: although few respondents felt they would be able to reduce their working hours if they were better at managing their time, in some organisations there are clearly issues with prioritisation, individual inefficiencies and work organisation.
  • long hours cultures: whereby long hours are interpreted as demonstrating commitment, the example set by managers working long hours and peer pressure can generate such cultures. Job insecurity and individuals feeling the need to prove their indispensability is also an issue for some employees.
  • a strong commitment amongst individuals towards their work, their colleagues and customers or clients. In some cases this is because they enjoy work and take a personal pride in it. In others, this commitment arises out of a desire to enhance career prospects.
  • a need to improve take-home pay, either through overtime payments where available, commission, or performance related pay.

Impact of long hours

Long working hours were perceived by our respond-ents to have a negative impact upon individuals, the organisations they worked for, and ultimately upon the national economy and society as a whole.


The extent to which long hours cause a problem for individuals can be influenced by the amount of control they have over their hours. For individuals, working long hours may lead to:

  • adverse impacts on personal relationships, families, social lives, and community activities
  • ill-health, although more difficult to directly attribute to long working hours
  • reduced employment opportunities for individuals, particularly those with caring responsibilities, who may be unable or unwilling to work long hours.


Working long hours may be viewed by employers as a way of getting the maximum benefit out of limited resources. However, in the longer term these effects are not sustainable. For employers the consequences of long working hours are:

  • increased sickness absence, low morale and high turnover
  • lower productivity and quality of work outputs
  • greater health and safety risks.

The Working Time Directive

The Working Time Directive became law in the UK on 1 October, 1998. The main requirements include a maximum working week of 48 hours averaged over a rolling 17 week period, weekly rest periods of 24 hours and daily rest periods of 11 hours, guaranteed three weeks’ holiday and protection for night workers. A number of sectors are excluded from the regulations, such as mobile workers involved in transport, as well as managing executives and those with autonomous decision making powers. Individuals can agree with their employer to opt out from the 48 hour limit. Exemptions can also be made through collective workforce agreements, but these cannot alter the 48 hour rule.

Measures to reduce long hours

The EU Working Time Directive is focusing employers’ attention on the issue of long working hours. Some employers welcome the impetus this is providing to address problems which they were already concerned about it. Others are concerned about the cost of complying with the regulations. However, the WTD is not the only reason for employ-ers implementing initiatives to tackle long working hours. Employers are recognising that although it may be efficient to work long hours in the short term, it is not sustainable in the longer term.

There are few examples of instances where employers have been able to successfully tackle long working hours and long hours cultures. However, drawing on the few examples identified in the course of this research, it appears that interventions fall into two main types: those aimed at changing work patterns, and those aimed at changing company culture and individual behaviour.

Changing work patterns

Examples include:

  • annualised hours
  • revised scheduling and rota schemes
  • flexible working arrangements and job redesign.

Changing individual behaviour and company culture

Examples include:

  • training and development programmes to improve time management and delegation
  • visibly changed top management behaviour and commitment
  • ‘go home on time’ days to raise awareness of the issue.

Key aspects of successful interventions include:

  • early consultation with staff and managers to identify the reasons for working long hours and generate solutions
  • solutions which tackle the underlying issues
  • commitment and a sponsorship for change from the very top of the organisation
  • a change agent with influence to champion the intervention and gain support of key people within the organisation
  • bringing the key people on board such as senior management and stakeholders such as unions
  • communication and publicity to raise awareness of the intervention
  • support and counselling to staff to help with changes on an individual basis
  • managers leading by example
  • reinforcing messages and maintaining momentum
  • on-going monitoring and feed-back about the intervention and hours worked, and
  • evaluation against identified success criteria.

The study

This report presents findings from research supported by the IES Research Club, a group of leading edge UK employing organisations who fund new research by IES into key employment issues.

The objectives of the study were to examine the reasons for working long hours, the effect on organisations and individuals of working long working hours, introduction of initiatives to reduce working hours and the impact of these measures.

The findings are based upon in-depth case study research with 12 leading employers from a range of sectors. Within all these organisations interviews were conducted with HR managers. In eight of the employers, focus groups and one to one interviews were conducted with employees, as well as a questionnaire survey of approximately 150 respondents.

Breaking the Long Hours Culture, Kodz J, Kersley B, Strebler M T, O’Regan S. Report 352, Institute for Employment Studies, 1998.
ISBN: 978-1-85184-281-0. PDF Download only: £8.00

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