Why “Present” Doesn’t Always Equal “Productive”

UK working hours

It was reported last week that employees in the UK work longer hours on average than workers in any other EU country. However, when productivity was measured, the UK did not come near the top of the list. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that being at work does not necessarily result in greater productivity.

According to a TUC survey, full-time workers in the UK worked an average of 42 hours a week last year, compared to 37 hours for their Danish counterparts and 39 hours for workers in Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Sweden.

When this was compared to productivity, workers in Denmark and Germany were found to be more productive despite working fewer hours. Indeed the UK came only 14th in the productivity table, which measured output per worker per hour.

This would tend to support what welfare in the workplace experts have been saying for some time – namely that being present in the workplace is not by itself conducive to being productive. It would appear that workers who have longer and more frequent periods of rest end up working more productively.

Of course, not every employee wants to work shorter hours!

Most employees who are paid at an hourly rate of pay will probably want to work longer hours to maximise their income. Voluntary overtime is an example of this. If an employee working 45 hours a week for £9 per hour was suddenly told that they must work only 37 hours a week for the same £9 per hour, very few employees in that situation would welcome the change. Depending on their contractual terms, they might even seek to resign and argue constructive dismissal.

In an ideal world, an employee who delivered the same total level of output doing 37 hours a week as they would have done working 42 hours a week could benefit from those extra 5 hours a week being dispensed with and the hourly rate of pay being increased to reflect the overall level of output. Sadly, in some industries, the economic reality suggests this would be unlikely to happen.

Employers should however take note of the findings.

Flexible ways of working should be seen as a potential boost to productivity rather than as an annoyance.

Take the example of Natasha who applies to her employer to work three days a week from 9.30am to 4.30pm and one other day a week from home. She does so because she has a disabled father for whom she is the primary carer and is the single parent of a child of school age.

If the employer rejected the request, Natasha would be left trying to juggle the demands of her work with those of her personal life. Although she might be visibly present in the workplace for longer each week, there is every chance her productivity would be affected by the conflicting demands placed upon her. Her mental health could become adversely affected. She might take more statutory time off to care for dependents at short notice. By the employer granting her request, she is more likely to be motivated to work to her maximum potential during the hours she is physically in the workplace and to ensure her day working from home is productive, not least to demonstrate to her employer that they made the right decision.

The discrepancy in weekly hours between different countries stems partly from cultural attitudes.

Whilst these may take a while to change, employers can contribute by embracing the concept that less can sometimes mean more when it comes to their employees’ working hours.

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