Report summary: Working Long Hours: a Review of the Evidence, Volume 1 – Main Report

The overall aim of this study was to bring together research that looked at working time patterns in the UK and made comparisons with the EU and other developed countries, with a view to explaining why the UK workforce had some of the longest working hours in Europe.

Interest in this topic was stimulated by the debate within government, industry and other organisations about the effectiveness of long hours working, particularly with respect to organisational performance and increasing productivity. It was commissioned against the background of increasing demands for better work-life balance and new government measures to tackle long hours working; most notably the Working Time Regulations (WTR) that came into force on 1 October 1998.


This report was based on a review of the research literature and secondary analysis of established social survey series: 1998 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS98); the Labour Force Survey (LFS) including the European Community Labour Force Survey (ECLFS); and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). It also provided case studies of UK firms that were ‘matched’ with similar EU firms (from France, Germany and Sweden) to ‘test-out’ and ‘contextualise’ survey evidence.


Surveys are used to collect evidence on patterns of working hours. However, comparing evidence from different surveys is not unproblematic, since there are often significant differences between them in how working hours are defined (eg whether it is based on actual or usual hours worked, whether it refers to the main job only or includes other jobs, whether it includes time working at home or in travel to and from work, etc.) There may also be differences in how information is collected (eg whether it is based on recall or on detailed work diaries). These, and other factors related to survey design, can make for difficulties in drawing comparisons, especially when the divergent findings are apparent. These difficulties are evident when comparing the findings of the UK surveys presented in this study. They are compounded in the case of cross-national surveys and case study research when linguistic and cultural factors are also brought into play. Notwithstanding, the overall findings showed a great deal of consistency

What are 'long hours'?

The review of the research literature showed that what constituted ‘long hours working’ was very much subject to debate. People’s own assessments seemed to be based upon their own direct experience, such that long hours working was perceived as a significant departure from their normal working week. However, for the purpose of this report, it was defined as more than 48 hours a week, in line with the WTR.

Most of the research literature and survey data reviewed pre-dated the introduction of the WTR. These findings should not, therefore, be used to draw conclusions either about employers’ or employees’ compliance with, or the impact of, the Working Time Regulations 1998.

Who is working long hours?

  • Eleven per cent of employees in the UK were working long hours (over 48 hours a week).
  • There were clear gender differences. Men were significantly more likely to work long hours than women.
  • Men with children were slightly more likely to work longer hours than those without, while women with children were less likely to work long hours than those without.
  • There were also clear life-cycle differences, with people aged between 30 and 49 being the most likely to work long hours.
  • Managers, professionals and operative and assembly workers were those occupations most likely to work long hours. Amongst women who worked long hours, two-thirds were in managerial and professional occupations (23 per cent and 40 per cent respectively).
  • Some research suggested that there were significant differences in the incidence of long hours working across the managerial grades, with top managers the most likely to be working over sixty hours a week.
  • Over two-thirds of managerial and professional long hours workers were neither paid nor given time-off in lieu. This contrasts sharply with craft and skilled, services, operative and assembly workers, where well over half were compensated in some way for working extra hours (WERS98).
  • The sectors with a particularly high incidence of long hours working were construction, transport, communication and agriculture, forestry and fishing. The incidence of long hours working was higher in the private sector than the public sector.

Are things getting better?

  • The proportion of UK employees working long hours had increased over the previous decade, notwithstanding that between 1988 and 1998 the basic average weekly standard hours fell for both men and women (from 40.2 to 39.3 and 37.4 to 36.8, respectively).
  • The increase in long hours working was primarily due to the increased use of overtime both paid and unpaid. The large rise in unpaid overtime among women was likely to reflect the increase in the numbers of women employed in managerial and professional occupations.
  • Over one-third of men with children in the household worked more than 50 hours per week in 1998, which was a six per cent rise over the previous decade (Harkness, LFS).
  • The incidence of long working hours increased over the decade 1988 to 1998 following a period of long-term decline. Uniquely, in the UK this had been accompanied by a growing polarisation in working hours, with some groups working longer and others working shorter hours.

Reasons given for long hours working

  • Manual and non-manual workers gave significantly different reasons for long hours working. The reasons given for long hours working depended greatly on whether overtime was paid or not paid (WERS98).
  • Paid overtime was most commonly found amongst manual occupations. Where overtime was paid, the main reason given for overtime working was to ‘increase pay’, while the second most important reason was related to the need to meet the requirements of the job (WERS98).
  • Unpaid overtime was most common amongst manual and professional workers. Where overtime was unpaid, the main reasons given for overtime working were related to the requirements of the job (WERS98).
  • Amongst managerial and professional workers, there was a clear association between the amount of overtime worked and current levels of pay. This lends support to the view that managers and professional staff work long hours in anticipation/expectation of higher earnings in the future (BHPS). (However, more detailed statistical analysis suggests that the link between hours worked and earnings may be more complex).
  • The review of the research literature, backed up by the findings from the case studies, suggested that a major reason for long hours working, particularly when it was unpaid, was the volume of work. Factors perceived to be associated with increasing volumes of work relate to new organisational initiatives (including flattening organisational structures due to de-layering, increases in project based working, a greater emphasis on customer focus, meetings culture), staff shortages (including demands upon specialist staff), IT/email overload, and increasing need for some employees to travel for their work.
  • The review of the research literature suggested that the attitudes and expectations of managers and, in some cases, workgroup members could be critical in engendering a long hours culture where ‘being present’ was valued as a sign of commitment to work. The case studies suggested that cultural pressures were likely to be particularly prevalent amongst employers of non-manual workers, where the behaviour and attitudes of managers and work colleagues combinde to push up the level of unpaid overtime.
  • Other reasons given for long hours working included job insecurity, employee preference, occupational commitment and career enhancement.
  • Overall, the research findings showed that many people working long hours did so for a combination of reasons, which could be difficult to disentangle, especially in an organisation or part of an organisation where a long hours culture wass perceived or was known to prevail.

The international context

EU member states

  • Average working hours in the UK were mid-range across all EU member states when all employees (full-time and part-time employees) were included.
  • However, simple international comparisons can be misleading. In particular, the UK position (mid-range) was distorted by the fact that, compared with most other EU states, the UK employed a high proportion of part-time women workers (working fewer than 30 hours a week).
  • Amongst full-time employees, the UK showed high levels of long hours working (over 48 hours a week), especially amongst men, where the UK had the highest level of long hours working in the EU. Just over one-fifth (22 per cent) of UK men working full-time worked long hours, compared with an average of one-tenth (11 per cent) across the other EU member states.
  • Full-time male managers worked the longest hours in the UK and across the EU member states as a whole. However, (on average) UK managers did not work longer hours than their EU counterparts.
  • In the craft, trade, operative and elementary occupations a significantly higher proportion of full-time male employees worked over 48 hours, than in any other EU member state.
  • Professional women in the UK worked a higher proportion of long hours than their EU counterparts, though EU women managers were more likely to work long hours than women managers in the UK.
  • The UK had comparatively high concentrations of long hours working in the production sectors, in contrast to other EU states, where it was more concentrated in the service sector, particularly hotels and catering.
  • Overall, between 1992 and 1999 (on average) there had been very little change in the proportions of long hours working both in the UK and the rest of the EU.

Selected non-European developed economies (USA, Australia and Japan)

  • In the USA, a quarter of men and a tenth of women were working more than 48 hours a week. These proportions had risen over recent decades. In common with EU member states, managers were the most likely to work long hours.
  • In Australia, around one-third of men were working long hours, which represented a significant increase from one-fifth in 1984. Also, 15 per cent of women worked more than 48 hours a week. As with the USA and EU member states, long hours work in Australia was concentrated amongst managers. However, it was also to be found amongst trades, sales and operative workers.
  • In Japan, 36 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women worked over 48 hours per week in 1994. For men this represented a significant cutback in long hours working over the previous decade, when over half of men worked over 48 hours per week in 1984.

Reasons for international differences

The USA, Australia and Japan had significantly higher proportions of long hours working than non-English EU speaking countries. The UK (along with Ireland) appeared to be mid-range, although tended more towards non-EU developed countries. Notwithstanding these generalised national differences, it was clear that long hours working is endemic amongst managerial and professional employees. Research suggested two main reasons for these inter-country variations:

  • income inequality: where income inequality was high there was a higher incidence of paid long hours working amongst manual workers (arguably to compensate for relatively low hourly rates)
  • statutory and contractual regulation: in particular the existence of working hours legislation pre-dating the European Working Time Directive (Luxembourg, France, Netherlands and Spain) and collective contractual agreements (Germany and Sweden) that reduced working hours.

Cultural factors were also cited. However, the research evidence was limited mainly to Japan.

Employee satisfaction with long hours

In the UK, research showed that dissatisfaction with long hours working and preferences for shorter working hours increased with the number of hours worked. However, this pattern concealed important differences. In particular:

  • Women were less likely to be satisfied with their job overall, the more hours they worked. The reverse was true for men. However, satisfaction with promotion prospects increased the more hours that were worked, particularly for women.
  • Women, particularly those working long hours, were more likely to want to reduce their working hours.
  • The UK case studies suggested that manual workers working long hours, who were able significantly to boost their pay through overtime working, were not only satisfied with their (long) hours but also were resistant to attempts to reduce working hours.

Impact of long hours on employers and employees

Employment and productivity

There were considerable theoretical and methodological difficulties in measuring the impact of long hours working on organisational performance. Overall, however, on the basis of the evidence, it was not possible to establish conclusively whether long hours working had beneficial, detrimental or neutral overall effects. There was some recent evidence suggesting that reductions in long hours might be a factor associated with increases in employment or productivity. However, it was difficult to isolate the impact of reducing working hours per se, since reductions in long hours working were typically accompanied by other developments, such as changes in work organisation, new capital investment, etc.

Work performance

The review of the research literature showed that long hours working, especially when coupled with sleep disruption, caused deterioration of task performance, because it had detrimental effects on such things as rates of error, pace of work and social behaviour. However, there was no conclusive evidence that long hours working led to lower levels of overall work or organisational performance. Moreover, if it did, it was difficult to establish the working time duration thresholds at which any such effects set in, especially as this was likely to vary significantly according to individual characteristics. The UK case study research suggested that some employers had serious concerns about the adverse impact of long working hours on productivity and quality of output.

Health and safety

The review of the research literature showed clear grounds for concern about the adverse effect of long hours working and (the frequency of) health and safety incidents. However, most of this research focused upon specific occupations (eg long distance lorry drivers, the medical professions), which precluded more general conclusions being drawn.

Motivation, absence and turnover

The review of the research literature showed that there was little robust statistical evidence on the effects of long hours working on employee motivation, absence and turnover. However, self-reporting and organisational case studies suggested that long working hours had a negative effect on motivation, absence and turnover. The analysis of WERS98 revealed a significant association between long hours working and higher staff turnover. However, it was not clear whether long hours working was leading to higher staff turnover or whether high rates of staff turnover made it necessary for remaining employees to work longer hours. The UK case study research showed that some employers were particularly concerned that working long hours might lead to higher levels of sickness absence and staff turnover.


The review of the literature showed that there was a considerable body of research looking at the influence of work patterns on employee health, although most of this focused on employees working unsocial hours or shift patterns, rather than long working hours per se. Here the cumulative research evidence showed that there were associations between long hours working and health outcomes, such as mental health and cardio-vascular problems. The UK case study research suggested a link between long hours working and minor ill-health problems, particularly for non-manual workers.

Work-life balance

The review of the research literature and the UK case studies suggested that many, but by no means all, long hours workers were unhappy with their work-life balance and that their working patterns had a negative impact on their domestic relationships. However, there was no robust statistical evidence that long hours workers were significantly more likely than employees with standard or alternative working hours (eg shift and rotating shift workers, flexible workers, etc.) to perceive that their working arrangements had a detrimental effect on their work-life balance.

Were women more likely to be disadvantaged by long hours working?

The review of the research literature suggested that in organisations characterised by systemic long hours working, women’s careers might be restricted. However, there were few systematic studies to try and establish such a link. The analysis of the BHPS suggested that:

  • Partnered women who worked long hours still carried the burden for the main household tasks of cleaning and cooking. This was rare for partnered men working long hours. This might have been part of the explanation why women were more likely than men to be dissatisfied with long hours working.
  • Women working long hours were much more likely than those who did not work long hours to report poor health. For women, there was also an association between long hours working and higher levels of mental stress, especially if it was over a sustained period (over a year) and they had a partner. In contrast, men who worked long hours reported being healthier than men who worked shorter hours. However, this might have been the result of healthier people being able to work longer hours and those with ill health having to work fewer hours, rather than long hours working leading to better health.
  • Working people’s satisfaction with various aspects of their lives, for example, health, social life and leisure pursuits, tended to decrease with the number of hours worked. Again, this negative effect was much more marked amongst women than men.

Overall, the findings suggested that long hours working put women under greater amounts of pressure and had a greater negative impact on their health, well-being and satisfaction with life than it did for men.

Perceived benefits of long hours working

Little conclusive evidence was available on the benefits of long hours working. However, the review of the research literature and the case studies suggested that, in at least some UK workplaces, manual workers saw positive benefits from long hours working, in that it provided opportunities to increase their earnings, at least in the short term. Also, managers and professional staff saw the benefits of long hours working in improved promotion prospects and/or in providing for greater job security.


  • Long hours working was associated with (but was not proved to cause) various negative effects, such as decreased productivity, poor performance, health problems, and lower employee motivation.
  • More men than women worked long hours.
  • Women were more likely than men to suffer health related problems, if they worked long hours.
  • The most common reasons for working long hours were to increase pay (where overtime was paid) or to meet the needs of the job (where it was not paid).

The report

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