Analysis – UK plc: all work and no play.

Not necessarily the amount of time you spend in the office but the actual number of hours worked each year. If you were a Swedish worker your average would be just over 1,600 hours according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Roughly the same number of hours as if you worked in Paris, Bordeaux or Marseilles.

A Norwegian works less than 1,400 hours, a German around 1,550 hours and an Italian 1,650.

The UK trend over the past 20 years has been for the average numbers of hours worked to remain roughly the same.

It is not the case in other countries. In France, where legislation has reduced the working week to 35 hours, the trend has been for people to work less. In 1979, a French worker was working 1,806 hours per year, the same as in the UK. Now there is more than a 100-hour difference with the UK ‘enjoying’ a greater number of working hours.

If you want to calculate how many hours you put in each year, you might as well work it out during yet another stint of (unpaid) overtime. British workers put more extra hours in each year than their counterparts in Western Europe. A study by the Anglo-German Foundation concluded that unpaid overtime averaged 36 minutes each week for German men and 12 minutes for women.

In the UK, this figure reached almost two hours each week for men, more than 104 unpaid extra hours each year, and one hour and 20 minutes for women.

Certain sectors were particularly affected, including accountancy. ‘Unpaid overtime is concentrated among managerial and professional workers in both the UK and Germany,’ claimed the report, Unpaid Work in the Workplace: A Comparison of Germany and the UK.

One reason why the British are willing to work longer and for little financial reward is the prospect of promotion, but putting in more hours may not be that good for us or the economy.

An International Labour Organisation report, Working longer: Working better?, questions the value of long hours. ‘The number of hours worked is one important indicator of a country’s productivity and quality of life,’ said Juan Somavia, ILO director-general, before adding that ‘while the benefits of hard work are clear, it is not at all clear that working more is the same as working better.’

The UK has a working culture out of sync with many of its near neighbours in Western Europe.

When Marks and Spencer decided to shed more than 4,000 jobs across Europe by closing 39 of its stores, the British media focused on the true tragedy: Parisian housewives would no longer be able to buy M&S’ knickers and English fruit cakes.

In Europe the reaction was different, focusing on the morality behind Marks’ decision. This culminated in a march through central London by workers from across Europe protesting at the decision of a British company (with a Belgian boss), a truly remarkable event on its own.

The protesters were backed by the French prime minister Lionel Jospin who said companies should not be allowed to get away with such actions.

‘I wish our government would stand up for British workers against multinationals in the same way as the French prime minister,’ declared Bill Morris, leader of the Trades Union Congress, wistfully.

But could the British working culture become transnational, incorporating the traits found on the other side of the Channel? With the UK on the verge of at least considering entry into the euro, many things could change.

Even without entry into the euro, European legislation could force changes in the way we work.

Recently, ministers have had to sign up to a directive that allows for greater consultation in the workplace which could lead to the establishment of workers’ councils across the country, and more legislation will follow.

Next month, Belgium takes control of the EU presidency pledging to try and take powers away from nation states and give them to European institutions.

Cultural changes could also force reform. One theory is that the younger generations are less culturally xenophobic towards Europe and want to emulate the amount of time spent outside work by those living, in some cases, only 20-odd miles away.

But what could be happening is convergence towards the model favoured in the US where the average time spent working each year is almost 2,000 hours.

Longer hours, private pension provision and a shareholder-based economy have made their mark, particularly in places such as Germany where the ‘Mittlestand’ concept of family-run companies has been eroded by the power of the shareholder.

Instead of British workers enjoying the ‘enlightened’ European approach, the Germans, Dutch and Danish et al could be catching up. ‘I think it is fairly evenly balanced, if it is going to move it is going to be slow,’ says Steele.

If that is the case Britain’s traditional role of having an Atlantic and European outlook, usually with a small ‘e’, extends even to our working practices.

If you cannot decide which system you prefer, have a good think about it, preferably when you are at work. Let’s face it, you have enough time on your hands.

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