A Nation Of Workaholics: Britain’s ‘Long-Hours’ Culture

According to the 17th century French novelist, Francoise de Motteville “The true way to make ourselves happy is to love our work”. His compatriots today, though, don’t seem to share that view. Despite President Sarkozy’s attempts to make them think more ‘Anglo-Saxon’, over 50% of the French want to keep the current 35-hour week, remain attached to their long lunch-breaks and have no intention of giving up any of their 11 public holidays. Those who want to work harder tend to come to the UK where (they hope) they can earn much higher salaries. Which is why the French community in Britain is now estimated at around 300,000.

The average working week in the UK is 43.6 hours compared to 40.3 in the rest of Europe. Over 26% of employees in Britain put in more than 48 hours per week and one-sixth more than 60 hours per week. This also applies to the bosses: A recent survey concluded that four out of five worked over 60 hours per week and many got only 4 hours sleep a night. In parts of Spain and Italy, offices and shops close at 12 noon and don’t re-open until 4pm. Not in the UK. Here 65% of employees take just 27 of their 60-minute lunch break entitlement – often remaining at their computers with a sandwich. Although absenteeism can be a problem for some companies, only 44% of employees in Britain use up all their annual leave. They don’t want to get behind with their workload, upset the boss and risk their chances of promotion.  Statutory holiday leave was increased by the European Union from 20 to 24 days per year (for people working five days a week) on 1st October 2007. It will go up again to 28 days on 1st April 2009. Bank Holidays are included, so the employer can decide whether to pay extra for these or not.

Other EU members have complained that Britain’s ‘opt-out’ from the maximum 48-hour working week regulation gives it an unfair economic advantage. Most of them, however, have more public holidays than us. England & Wales get 8 (the same as in  Holland), Scotland 9 (one for St. Andrew’s Day) and Northern Ireland 10 (to mark both the Catholic St Patrick’s Day and the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). In continental Europe, it varies according to country and area: Italy (12), Spain (12-14), Germany (9-12), Luxembourg (10). In many of these, if the holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they’ll often take the ‘bridge day’ off as well. The British Trade  Union movement has campaigned for three additional bank holidays. A ‘Diana Day’ on the Monday closest to July 1st (the Princess’s birthday) has been proposed. Also ,a ‘Beatles Day’ on February 9th (the date the group first performed at the Cavern Club in Liverpool). Both of these are unlikely. More possible is April 23rd ( St. George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday),except that this would be a bit close to the two in May. The favourite at the moment is July 5th, the anniversary of the birth of the National Health Service (NHS).

The UK’s options are somewhat limited. As a former imperial power, it doesn’t have an ‘independence day’ to celebrate or even an equivalent to the fall of the Bastille. Also, for the Church of England, the saints don’t have the same status as (for example) in Italy or Latin America. Traditionally, it rains on British Bank holidays. If by chance the weather is reasonable, the roads to the countryside and coast are packed solid. Flights abroad cost more. The solution is probably to go to work as usual (especially if you’re being paid overtime) and go away when everyone else is staying at home.

Filed under: Society | Posted on May 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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