Since Tony Blair came grinning to power in 1997, successive Governments have promised, and in part delivered, a raft of family friendly policies, ostensibly aimed at helping to address our work life balance. The reality is that most of these policies have been designed to enable women to work harder and for workers to play the part of carers for our young, old, infirmed and physically disabled, thereby shifting that burden, and cost, from the State to the private sector. Attempts to actually reduce working hours have been toothless and cowardly, with the Government adopting the limits on working time proposed by the European Working Time Directive in the form of the Working Time Regulations 1998, which have more outs than a box set of Dragons Den. The result is that, in spite of all of this activity, the scales of the work life balance are increasingly loaded in favour of work.
The problem of overwork has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the economic downturn, which has seen organisations, in an attempt to maintain profitability, strip away employees, expecting those who remain to work harder and, at the threat of themselves falling into the oblivion and humiliation of unemployment, be grateful for the privilege.
Overwork is increasingly connected with obesity, heart disease, stress related mental illness and even cancer. Further, studies have shown that absent parents (a consequence of overwork) can lead to the breakup of the family unit and the breakdown of family values. In turn, this is believed to be directly connected with our increasingly feral, disrespectful youth who run amok on our streets and have caused the authorities’ cat and mouse attempts to defeat anti social disorder to become something of a soap opera played out in our print and broadcast media on a weekly basis.
Meanwhile officially we have 2.56 million unemployed (or as many as 6.6 million if you blow away the most obvious statistical smokescreens; 11 million if you put it to the microscope) and many of those resort to claiming job seekers allowance, housing benefit and other benefits, placing our welfare system under increasing strain.
Against this backdrop, new statistics released from recruitment consultant Ranstad this week reveal that the average professional is working the equivalent of six and a half working days per week. For some professionals this is higher, with lawyers, for example, working on average the equivalent of 8 days per week. These statistics say nothing, of course, about the millions of manual workers working excessive amounts of overtime, sometimes, as once was offered the writer, on the so-called “continental shift” (which, though it promised croissants and siestas, delivered 12 hour shifts, 7 days on, four days off. Sacré bleu!).
Now I’m no politician, or mathematician for that matter, but it seems to me self evident that we could begin to address many of the issues caused by overwork and reduce unemployment in the same breath by the imposition of a maximum 40 hour working week, taking the extra 1.5 or 3 days away from professionals, or the excessive overtime worked by manual workers, thereby forcing employers to recruit other employees to take up the slack.
Now I know what some will say, as they waggle their capitalist umbrellas, “but it sounds so anti free market.” Well that may be so but the free market shouldn’t be a runaway train and where we can see that it is getting out of control someone needs to jump on board and pull the brakes. In any event, the idea that the markets can take care of themselves is long dead, if not since Keynes, then particularly in light of the recent banking crises.
Sure, the imposition of a maximum working week would result in a commensurate drop in salaries, but this is the price that would have to be paid by individuals in the short term to ensure great advancements to society in the long term. In any event, more people working would mean more money being pumped into the economy and more consumer confidence, which in turn would increase profitability and wages generally in the long term. So a few professionals would have to miss out of their safari holidays for a few years, but the benefits of a well disciplined family, a happier society, and a happier healthier self would surely compensate for that, wouldn’t it?
Or is the truth of it that we are all complicit in this state of affairs, as bad as the organisations that seek to work us to death, and would, when push comes to shove, simply refuse to give up a pound of our wealth and status even if it did result in these more admirable advantages?