The UK Working Lives report, billed by the CIPD as its first comprehensive survey of the British workforce based on its new Job Quality Index, was released on Wednesday. Surveying around 6,000 workers throughout the country, the report aims to produce a clearer and more objective picture of the quality of the jobs available to employees in the UK, “using seven critical dimensions which employees, employers and policy makers can measure and focus on to raise job quality and improve working lives”:
The health and value of the modern economy has long been gauged purely on quantitative measures such as gross domestic product, growth rates and productivity. A concerted focus on advancing the qualitative aspects of jobs and working lives will prove to be the next step forward.
Overall, the picture the report paints of the British workplace is positive for a majority of employees: Most said they were satisfied with their jobs, while 80 percent said they had good relationship with their managers and 91 percent said they had good relationships with their colleagues. Nearly 60 percent said they would choose to work even if they didn’t have to. Nonetheless, substantial numbers of respondents identified overwork, stress, and mental health concerns related to their jobs, pointing to shortcomings in the impact work is having on their quality of life.
Three in ten workers told the CIPD they suffered to some extent from “unmanageable” workloads, while 6 percent said they were regularly swamped with “far too much” work each day. While 30 percent reported feeling “full of energy” at work most of the time, 22 percent said they often felt “under excessive pressure,” another 22 percent said they felt “exhausted,” and 11 percent reported feeling “miserable.” And although 44 percent said work had a positive impact on their mental health overall, a full 25 percent said the opposite. In terms of their physical health, only 33 percent said they thought work had a positive impact versus 27 percent who said its effect was negative.
New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal has introduced a bill that would “make it unlawful for private employers in the city of New York to require employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours.” The proposed law would apply to private organizations with more than ten employees and would fine violators $250 for each instance of noncompliance. The rationale behind the bill is to combat the high incidence of overwork among New York City residents, the New York Times’ Jonathan Wolfe notes:
The average New Yorker already works 49 hours and 8 minutes a week, longer than their counterparts in the next 29 largest cities in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the city comptroller. And that’s not including hours spent emailing at home. A 2017 study found that, on average, workers spend an extra eight hours a week sending email after work. Research has also shown that people who responded to work communications after 9 p.m. had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day.
“When you don’t have recovery and time off, it leads to more stress and ultimately burnout and exhaustion,” said Larissa K. Barber, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University who conducts research on work-life balance and coined a term for the urge to respond: “telepressure.”
The law is modeled after the “right to disconnect” law that came into effect in France last year, which mandates that organizations of more than 50 people agree with their employees on hours when they are not required to perform online work tasks like checking email. Modern telecommunications indeed pose a challenge in terms of work-life balance, as employees who work at all hours run a greater risk of burnout and stress.
Like some other East Asian economies, South Korea has long been known for a highly demanding work culture that rewards long hours and measures employees’ commitment by how much overtime they are willing to work. The country is one of the hardest-working in the OECD, with South Koreans working an average of 2,069 hours in 2016, compared to 1,783 hours in the US and just 1,363 hours in Germany. That may start to change in the coming years thanks to a bill approved by the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee last Tuesday, which cuts the maximum statutory working hours from 68 hours a week to 52, the Korea Times reported:
Slashing working hours was among the main election pledges of President Moon Jae-in, which he said will improve quality of life as well as help create jobs. However, fewer working hours means higher labor costs for businesses. According to an estimate by the Korea Economic Research Institute, businesses will pay an additional 12.1 trillion won annually to maintain current production while cutting the working hours. This includes wages paid to additional workers hired to cover the hours lost, as well as their training costs.
Over the past decade, the German economy has developed a reputation as one of the most successful in Europe and has garnered widespread praise for its apprenticeship initiatives, approach to automation, low unemployment, and for avoiding stumbling blocks such as the European sovereign debt crisis. As business confidence continues to soar, Chancellor Angela Merkel is working to help the country modernize its labor laws, which were last updated in 1918.
Current German law stipulates that workers cannot be forced to work longer than eight hours in a day and that they get a 30-minute break at least every six hours, in addition to 11 hours of off time between shifts. But global trends are shifting away from the concept of the 9-to-5 workday. With more flexible or remote arrangements and continuous connectivity, these century-old laws don’t do a great job of accommodating modern workers. For example, there’s nothing in them for freelancers, who require a different set of protections. Or if a salaried knowledge worker wanted to work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, current laws would not seem to allow it. Additionally, if a manager is contacting an employee at all hours of the day outside of the office to complete work, there is no specific protection against that.
In order to allow for such flexibility and continue to protect workers’ rights in today’s rapidly evolving labor market, the laws in place need to change. German policy advisors have recommended changing the maximum hours timeframe to one week instead of one day, thereby abandoning the eight-hour cap on the workday, and reducing the mandatory break between shifts to nine hours from 11, according to the Washington Post‘s Ashley Nunes.
A recent study from Cardiff University suggests that employees who work from home are more likely than their peers who work in the office to work extra hours and put extra effort into doing their jobs. The study, published in the journal New Technology, Work and Employment and covered by the Daily Mail, examined survey responses from 15,000 UK employees in 2001, 2006 and 2012, and found that 39 percent of at-home remote workers said they “often have to work extra time, over and above the formal hours of my job, to get through the work or to help out,” compared to just 24 percent of in-office workers. Also, 73 percent of those who work from home said they put more effort than required into their job, compared to 68.5 percent of those who work from the office.
Professor Alan Felstead, the study’s lead author, offered the Daily Mail a theory as to what was causing this discrepancy:
Professor Felstead said: ‘The evidence suggests that remote workers are over-compensating to prove to their colleagues they are not in their pyjamas at home and prove to their employers they are a safe pair of hands willing to go the extra mile in return for the discretion an employer gives them to work at home or in a remote location.’
Noting that the percentage of the UK workforce doing their jobs in a traditional workplace had fallen from 74.8 per cent in 2001 to 66.4 per cent in 2012, the study also pointed out that there were downsides to remote work in terms of employee wellbeing: Nearly 44 percent of remote workers reported that they had difficulty unwinding after a day at work, while only 38.1 percent of fixed-location staff said so. This, Felstead said, reflects the challenge for remote workers of setting clear boundaries between their professional and personal lives.
Another factor that might help explain why remote workers may be overcompensating is that they feel disconnected from their colleagues, Marianne Calnan adds at People Management:
An experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden, that reduced the schedules of nurses at an old-age home to six hours a day while maintaining their pay, concluded in January with mixed results, finding that while shorter hours made the nurses happier and healthier while improving the quality of the care they provided, the high cost of hiring new staff to fill in the hours the nurses were no longer working made the six-hour days too expensive to continue indefinitely.
Yet Bengt Lorentzon, one of the researchers involved in the experiment, believes that this conclusion may be shortsighted, and that the long-term positive impact of shorter days on the nurses’ health and productivity might have reduced costs in the long term. Bloomberg’s Rebecca Greenfield takes a look at Lorentzon’s argument:
Specifically, the nurses took fewer sick days than they did when working longer, eight hour days. They also took fewer sick days than nurses in the control group. In fact, they took fewer sick days than nurses across the entire city of Gothenburg. Overall, they took 4.7 percent fewer sick days over the period of the experiment, while nurses in the control group took 62.5 percent more sick days over the same time frame. Nurses who worked fewer hours took less unexpected time off, too. …
In general, the working population of nurses in Sweden are in worse health than the average Swede. The women in the facility have higher body mass indices than the average worker, for example. While the study didn’t run long enough to fully measure health effects of shorter days, the research indicates nurses working only six hours will experience permanent health benefits, resulting in savings.
These findings are interesting, but still don’t address how employers can make up for the performance loss that comes along with reducing hours.
A two-year experiment at an old-age home in Gothenburg, Sweden, which maintained nurses’ pay while reducing their schedules to six hours a day, has concluded with mixed results, and will not be permanently adopted. The Guardian reports that, though the shorter workdays made the nurses feel happier and healthier, reduced their use of sick leave, and improved the quality of the care they gave, the benefits also came at a significantly higher cost. Bloomberg notes that 17 new employees had to be hired on account of the experiment, at a cost of roughly $1.3 million. A proponent of the plan, local politician Daniel Bernmar, acknowledged that it was too expensive to continue, but added that the cost also ended up being only half of what they had expected, and said he is eager to see more research done into the long-term benefits of abbreviated working days.
Even to the extent that a six-hour workday was feasible in Sweden, skeptics had cast doubt on whether it could be replicated in a country like the US, where employees are accustomed to working longer hours, often in exchange for greater rewards. Yet one California business owner made headlines last year with his revelation that he was successfully running his organization on a five-hour workday. In any case, the traditional eight-hour day is being rethought in various ways as the nature of work and employment changes and people’s attitudes toward work-life balance evolve.