"Pioneering" business leaders


Influential, well-funded groups such as the CBI and Institute of Directors have for years issued press releases countering perceptions of increasingly long working hours. Such groups point to "pioneering" and "visionary" measures by companies in ushering in a "flexible" working environment in the UK (the media laps this up with little scepticism).

Working hours have risen in the last 20 years, on average, for UK full-time workers (as shown by the UK Labour Force Survey). This reverses a 150-year trend of declining working hours. And each year employees are giving £23 billion in free labour (unpaid overtime, etc) to their bosses, according to the TUC.

Furthermore, The Health and Safety Executive reports that the number of people suffering from work-related stress has more than doubled since 1990. And BBC News quotes the International Stress Management Association as saying:

"Each year we conduct research into stress and each year the figure just keeps on getting worse."

Journalists reading this might want to bear in mind some history when encountering the latest spin about our glorious business leaders from the CBI:

• UK governments have known for decades that long hours are economically counterproductive. A 1916 Home Office report, Industrial Fatigue, noted that output "is lowered by the working of overtime. The diminution is often so great that the total daily output is less when overtime is worked than when it is suspended. Thus overtime defeats its own object."

In 1933, the US Senate was close to passing a bill for a 30-hour week. The legislation seemed assured... until President Roosevelt, joined by the nation's captains of industry, squashed it. But in the atmosphere of expectancy of a shorter working week, W.K. Kellogg, in 1935, introduced a scheme to cut 2 hours from the working day, yet pay the same wages. Apparently this succeeded – a report from Kellogg claimed:

"This isn't just a theory with us. We have proved it with five years of experience. We have found that with the shorter working day, the efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight".

UK Labour Force Survey, Historical Supplement and Quarterly Supplement, Autumn 1999; TUC online, tuc.org.uk; Hazards magazine no. 81; BBC News Online, 7 Nov 2001; Hazards magazine factsheet 78, 2002; John de Graaf, Affluenza.