Long hours, flexible working and productivity

The debate rumbles on: what makes us the most productive as workers? Is it being chained to the desk for long hours, or do the Spanish have it right with their reputation for afternoon siestas – or perhaps the French with their strict 35-hour working week laws? Flexible world

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Our American cousins work the longest hours in the developed world – the most recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show the average annual total of working hours per worker in the US is 1,790. Perhaps that work ethic is one reason why the US economy is the largest on the planet and why the UK Office for National Statistics puts US productivity – measured as GDP per hour worked – at the top of the pile among G7 countries.

Work-life balance

But perhaps the real reason why Americans work so hard is because the US is the only developed country that has no legal requirement to provide a minimum amount of annual leave. And interestingly, Americans score well below the French and the Spanish in the OECD’s Better life Index when it comes to how they feel about work-life balance. So what of our European neighbours? The stereotype of France as a work-shy nation of long lunches and short working weeks was bolstered recently by news of a law banning employees from checking work emails after 6pm. In fact, there is no such law. Instead there is an agreement between unions and employers that affects a tiny minority of workers in high-tech and consulting sectors and is designed to protect workers who operate across international time zones.

The 35-hour week

The email fuss did throw into the spotlight once more France’s 35-hour working week, which most job contracts must adhere to by law – something which is controversial even among the French themselves. Some politicians and employers argue it is holding back the economy, but the facts don’t support that: the OECD’s most recent productivity figures put France just behind Germany, but only by 0.1 GDP per hour worked. And that is achieved with an average annual total of working hours of just 1,479. Outsiders may see Spain as a place of late-rising, long lunches and afternoon siestas but in truth most Spanish workers endure a long and disjointed day. The OECD figure for average annual work hours is 1,686 – more than the UK, France and Germany. Spain’s chaotic working hours are partly down to a 1942 decision to artificially change the country’s time zone. Organisations such as the Association for the Rationalisation of Spanish Working Hours believe Spanish time should be realigned with UK time and that this would help productivity.

Finding the balance

So who’s right? UK recruitment firm Robert Half has conducted its own research on the topic of long hours/short hours and productivity levels. More than half (56%) of UK HR directors cite “overtime/long working hours” as the second most common reason for employee burnout. HR specialist High Performance Consultancy’s MD Victoria Brown says: “A motivated and healthy workforce should clearly be the most productive and the introduction of flexible working should help to promote both.” Penny De Valk, MD of Penna Talent Management, says: “Productivity isn’t driven by the number of hours worked, but by motivated and happy employees who feel that they have control of how flexibly they work, are encouraged to take breaks and enjoy holidays, and are given support with prioritising in an increasingly busy and fast-paced world.” And yet, despite all this, much public debate seems still to revolve around the 1950s idea of ‘hard-working families’, as if the only valuable employee is a man, grimy-faced and sweat-stained from a day of back-breaking work, going home to his wife and children. In the modern economy, shouldn’t we be looking instead at how employers can get the best from everyone – rather than just the most hours – to create a nation not of ‘hard-working families’ but ‘happy, productive people’? Interested in flexible working? Find out about forthcoming changes to the law.