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What Are ‘Proper’ Working Hours? By Sarah Fletcher


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Sarah Fletcher asked training professionals for their views on the TUC’s recent research claiming that five million workers in the UK work unpaid and uncompensated overtime.

The TUC encouraged employees to challenge the UK’s “long hours” culture by working only their contractually designated hours on Friday 24 Feb as part of their “Work Your Proper Hours Day” programme.

We asked individuals working in training if there is such a thing as a “proper” working day, and whether it is practical to expect a nine to five routine in senior or responsible positions.

Our members consider whether extra hours are necessary to build a successful career, and if overtime it exposes low productivity and poor people management in UK organisations.

Are extra hours simply part of the job?

Our members agreed that the working day is as long as the job requires, although where possible this should be contractually agreed upon and recompensed appropriately.

The trainers surveyed questioned whether needing to work longer hours exposed poor employee productivity or bullying from senior management. The necessity for individual choice in deciding working hours was stressed.

  • “I regard trainers as professionals and therefore they should do the hours necessary (obviously within reason) to complete the task,” Graham Stanford, Senior Training Officer, Kent Police College.
  • “Particularly if you work in the private sector. My partner is in the public sector and the working hours culture there is very different – my partner and I leave for work at the same time but he typically gets home two to three hours before me and he still manages to accrue overtime/flexi hours,” Jane Roberts, Training and Development Consultant, Heath Lambert.
  • “I don’t think people should be forced to work extra hours. However, people need to be aware of the culture of the team, department or organisation, and to understand how that time is refunded should a need for extra hours arise.” Frances Millar, Training manager, NHS Glasgow.
  • “Extra hours come with the job, especially at the senior level I work at. However, I also encourage my team not to get into the habit of working extra hours. On the rare occasions I ask them to work extra it is less of an issue,” Gillian Caldicott, Hire Trainer, Portakabin Ltd.
  • “I would not be specifically discriminated against if I refused overtime, but my job would be different and less fun. I probably wouldn’t be able to design and deliver the training to the full range of delegates, so my colleagues would have to pick up the slack – making me less popular. However, there are people in the training department here who have very specific hours because of child care or other commitments, and they seem to progress up the career ladder the same way as more flexible colleagues,” Livia Dyckhoff, Training Designer, Scottish Gas.
  • “It can be but I don’t think it should be. Job roles should be constructed in such a way that the work can be accommodated within the hours without causing undue stress to the individual employee, and without damaging the quality of the goods or services provided by the organisation,” Phillipa Smith, HRD Manager, Centro.
  • “I think it’s really sad and unproductive that over five million employees worked longer than their contractual hours. The question needs to be asked: are they the right person for the job or do they need help?” Arabella Underwood, Training and Communications Manager, Cobra Group.

Is it practical to expect to work nine to five?

Flexibility was powerfully key here – productivity does not necessarily peak during traditional office hours, and the overwhelming majority felt both organisations and their employees would benefit from a greater willingness to take personal responsibility over working times.

  • Yes if it suits you and that’s what you are paid for and contracted into and no, if not. Not all of us think best between nine and five. Some of my best work is done at 10pm and in a way that I doubt I could do it at 4 pm. Nine to five does not take changing patterns of family life into account. Schools don’t run nine to five (and I’m not sure they should – children need to play and to see their parents before they are too exhausted to speak),” Bridget Rothwell, Learning and Development Consultant, Barnardos.
  • “Additional hours should be a subject of non-threatening negotiation – particularly for the childless who are deemed not to have a life because they have no commitments,” Sue Caffary, Basic Skills Advisor, LSC.
  • “To keep the competitive edge and to meet the needs of individuals everyone needs to adopt a more flexible approach,” Rose Ann Innes, Learning and Development Manager, UFI Ltd.
  • “No – I think employees should expect to be flexible with their working hours in order to best meet the needs of their role and employer, with a reasonable expectation being that the employer will be flexible with employees should the need arise,” Sarah McDermott, Education and Development Manager, Velindre Cancer Centre.
  • “As a trainer, I often need to work off site and have early mornings or late evenings to prepare and run events. Also, working in the broking industry where brokers need to be “in the market” between 10am and 4pm, you often need to be flexible if you want to build relationships with senior people to gain credibility,” Jane Roberts, Training and Development Consultant, Heath Lambert.

Why do we have a “long hours” culture?

Our senior training professionals focused strongly upon the global marketplace which demands services on a 24 hour basis.

They also raised queries over productivity and managerial competence – is overtime a symptom of poor leadership, or poor quality employees?

  • “We have swallowed wholesale a completely unsustainable belief system about the pace and meaning of work. We also often work with a theory of what the work involves rather than the reality. For instance, time spent working on the quality of team based relationships don’t often qualify as ‘doing the work’ and yet it’s often what much time is spent on. If we thought of ‘time devoted or connected to carrying out work’ as ‘time not devoted to family, self, leisure, other things’ I suspect that the TUC’s findings would be even more extreme,” Bridget Rothwell, Learning and Development Consultant, Barnardos.
  • “There is a tendency for senior managers to measure performance in hours worked after five pm – this is ridiculous unless you can measure the whole performance,” Michael Smith, Training and Audit Manager, Chaucer Insurance.
  • “We are now a 24 hour society and expect service around the clock. It also suits some families with childcare responsibilities to be able to look after children without having to pay for nurseries and childminders,” Angela Trueman, People Development Coordinator, Jardine Lloyd Thompson.
  • “In today’s global working environment I think that the nine to five is a thing of the past. However, I would gladly bring it back, if only to restore work/life balance,” Philp Audrey, Training Officer, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.
  • “The reality is that we constantly work longer than contractually bound because the habit of quantity rather than quality has been ingrained,” Heidi Cowan, Training Consultant.

What are the consequences of the UK’s “long hours” culture?

The training professionals quizzed repeatedly commented upon the negative impact upon productivity as individuals failed to allow themselves time to think through problems.

The main concern focused upon work/life balance, and the impact upon health and morale.

  • “There is a competitiveness to hours – who’s in earliest, who’s still here at the end. We still think looking frantic and doing things is the only valuable contribution. Actually, self care and sitting for a wee think are often more productive,” Bridget Rothwell, Learning and Development Consultant, Barnardos.
  • “In my experience, working overtime sends everyone into a downward spiral of exhaustion – everyone becomes tired, less effective, bad tempered and you do not achieve what you want to. There is no work/life balance – it is just work, work, work and more work,” Stella Parkes, Training and Events Coordinator, Time Banks.
  • “More people will feel the need to follow this culture in order to seem willing and enthusiastic,” Mandy Scott-Hopkins, Training and Development Business Manager, Great North Western Railway.
  • “Workplace culture has been affected in that people complain that if they leave “on time” they feel guilty and almost have to sneak out,” Garth Wood, Head of Consultancy Services, WLMGA.

  • “Individuals need to take responsibility and the “blame” cannot always be laid at the foot of the employer,” Rose Ann Innes, Learning and Development Manager, UFI Ltd.

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What do you think are the main issues in this debate? Would you expect to work overtime to develop your career? Post your comments below.


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