UK: BURNING THE MIDNIGHT OIL. - Why are so many British managers working a 60-hour week?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Why are so many British managers working a 60-hour week?

It's a truism that managers in Britain work longer and harder today than ever in the past. Almost half the respondents to a 1994 survey by Ashridge Management Research Group put in a minimum of 60 hours each week. What's less well known is that the British manager is much more likely than his foreign counterpart to take work home. Two-thirds of the managers based in the UK frequently take work home from the office: the comparable figure in most other parts of the world is about one-third. At first glance such dedication reflects great credit on the UK manager. On the other hand it could be a sign of weakness.

Professor Cary Cooper of UMIST, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, believes that the reason why people take work home is simple. Managers today, he says, suffer from 'presenteeism'. 'They have too much work to do, and - being fearful of redundancy - they work too hard and turn up for work even when they shouldn't. Taking work home is part of that equation.' The optimum working week, according to Cooper, is some 35-40 hours. 'It might have been slightly longer in the past, but new technology is creating more pressure, not less. Technology increases the pace of work by introducing the requirement to respond immediately.' 'Occasionally we all need to take some work home,' Cooper accepts. 'But if you consistently do it every night, then it's bad. First, because most managers have families, or partners ... If they bring work home, is it good for their relationships or good for their children? Second, is it good for their health or for their companies? Do they really get the rest and recuperation required to be the bright, creative and innovative managers which today's businesses require?' Margaret Esslemont, facilities and services co-ordinator at the Aberdeen office of Conoco, the multinational oil company, admits to taking work home regularly but believes there is no choice. 'No one is happy about taking work home - it bites into your leisure time too much - but it's the norm in this type of industry. If I didn't work outside 8.30-5.00 then I wouldn't meet deadlines,' she says. That might suggest that the deadlines are less than reasonable. But it's a brave subordinate manager who would make even a mild protest on this account, since it would be all too likely to put a question-mark against his (or her) competence and dedication. 'A UK manager who takes work home is said to be committed to his job.' observes Cooper. 'A German manager who did the same would be thought of as incompetent, because part of his job as a manager is to manage his time.' It's also the case that many British managers regard willingness to work long hours as a prerequisite for promotion. 'It would have been difficult to progress without doing excess hours,' says Roger Gould, deputy chairman of the Oldham-based Seton Healthcare Group. 'Those who are career-minded probably spend more time working than is good for a balanced life, but it is difficult to escape the trap. Companies still favour those who appear more dedicated, and while I can see the logic of viewing them as incompetent for not managing their time, that's still the way it is in Britain.' Vicki Holton, of Ashridge Management Research Group, points out that there are basically two schools of thought on this issue: 'One says that the stress of working long hours energises you and is good for you - the other takes the opposite view.' However, some companies these days are beginning to taking a rather more rounded view of their employees' lives. A senior human relations consultant with a leading UK oil company reports that: 'Our contracts expect people to work according to the exigencies of the business, and we don't have a policy of either encouraging or discouraging working at home. However, we have recently launched initiatives aimed at persuading employees to get a better balance in their lives. In flatter organisations it is harder to get on than in the past, so many employees are willing to take work home.' But the HR specialist has few words of comfort for those working long into the night in the hope of securing simple continuity of employment: 'People have perhaps been intimidated into thinking that they will be moved up the redundancy shortlist if they can't cope with their workload. But that's not the case. Employees are made redundant for very many other reasons.'

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