A Return to Burnout Britain?

Posted on September 16, 2015

Are you happy with your work-life balance? Most of us are according to the government’s Work Life Balance Employee Survey. Over half of UK employers now offer flexible working hours and the vast majority of employees report that this improves workplace morale. However, when more than half of those on flexible hours feel they’ve had to compromise (with lower pay, longer hours, blurring of boundaries between work and home), is this emerging culture actually improving our lives?

A recent TUC analysis warns that we are returning to ‘Burnout Britain’, with the number of people working excessive hours (more than 48 hours per week) up by 15% to 3.417 million since 2010. The TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, says that:

“Britain’s long hours culture is hitting productivity and putting workers’ health at risk. Working more than 48 hours a week massively increases the risk of strokes, heart disease and diabetes.”

The TUC has called on the government to implement stronger rules on excessive work hours, urging them to renegotiate Britain’s responsibilities under the EU Working Time Directive.

The Working Time Directive provides a right to work no more than 48 hours a week. However, when the UK (reluctantly) enacted this into law in 1998, it allowed workers to opt out from the maximum working week. The UK now has the longest average working week in the EU and the highest work-related stress and absentee rates.

But are longer working hours just the price we pay for increased flexibility and autonomy? 2015-09-15-1442360086-6628329-aileenocarroll.jpgIn a new book, Working Time, Knowledge Work and Post-Industrial Society, Aileen O’Carroll explains that while flexibility can sometimes mean increased hours, it also means a move towards irregular and unpredictable hours. In fact, the key change in our working hours in the last decade is not that they are getting longer but that they are becoming more unpredictable and this is linked to increased dissatisfaction. O’Carroll looks at this ‘autonomy paradox’ and investigates why autonomy and flexibility over our working hours tends to lead to a poorer work-life balance.

With flexibility, work time can spill over into non-work time, especially when a deadline needs to be met or something unexpected comes up. This ’emergency time’ is further facilitated by mobile technologies that allow employers to contact employees at any time. ‘Spaghetti time’ describes the intermingling of work and leisure time – workers can check personal emails, social media and websites throughout the day but are often expected to socialise with colleagues at lunch or after work. This results in leisure time becoming a grey area that is not quite work and not quite play.

The expectation is that workers will be rewarded for these inconveniences but these rewards can tend to be ‘disruptive bargains’ in that they are not straight exchanges of time for money. For example, a worker might put in extra hours at the start of a project or a career in the hope that there will be fewer hours at the end of it.

In reality, flexibility rarely results in fewer working hours and the unpredictability of the rewards on offer can cause tension in the workplace. There is also the fact that a ‘job for life’ has been replaced with a ‘job for now’ and workers face the stress and risks involved in frequent movement from one workplace to another.

O’Carroll clearly demonstrates the emergent culture of unpredictability and the way in which it attempts to set a new standard by which working (and by default, non-working) time is organised. In this new culture, employees may seem to have more autonomy and flexibility over their working hours but the irregular and unpredictable nature of it actually weakens their ability to control time in their own interests. This also impacts on their capacity to use collective approaches to negotiations.

These negative effects of flexible working hours are most pronounced in countries with weak working time regulation. So what’s the government’s response to recent revelations? In reply to the TUC, Minister for Europe, David Lidington, has stated that the government’s priority is “to retain the individual’s right to opt-out of the 48-hour limit in weekly working time” in order to promote “long-term, sustainable growth and labour market flexibility.”

Burnout Britain, here we come.

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Huffington Post on 17 September 2015.

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