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Mental Capital and Mental Wellbeing
Government Office for Science
Version date: 21 September 2007
Working Longer: Hours of Work and Health
Dr Sabir I. Giga
School of Health Studies, University of Bradford, UK
Dr Ajay K. Jain
Department of Human Behavior and Organizational Development,
Management Development Institute, India
Professor Cary L. Cooper
Management School, Lancaster University, UK
This review has been commissioned as part of the UK Government’s
Foresight project: Mental Capital and Mental Wellbeing. The views expressed
do not represent the policy of any Government or organisation.
It is apparent from the implementation of European Union (EU) and United
Kingdom (UK) regulatory measures introduced in order to limit working hours
that there is a general awareness of some of the perils associated with
excessive work demands. However, it is also evident that any changes to
working practices should not have an adverse impact on employee
productiveness and organisational and national competitiveness.
This review presents evidence highlighting workload, organisational culture,
management style and personal drive as the main causes for working longer
hours with reported effects on, amongst other things, mental wellbeing,
fatigue, sickness absenteeism and employee dissatisfaction. With
suggestions of no improvement in working hours for certain professional
groups, and only a marginal reduction in average working hours in the UK in
general over the last decade, some researchers argue for the firmer
implementation of policies as a way of sustaining a healthy and productive
workforce. Limitations of this review and implications for policy and practice
1. Introduction and Scope of Review
This report encompasses a scientific review on the topic of ‘Working Longer:
Hours of Work and Health’ with the objective of informing the UK Government
Office for Science’s Foresight project on Mental Capital and Mental Wellbeing.
The review aims to highlight current understanding of the effects of long
working hours on mental health and wellbeing, as well as envisaging future
trends and key challenges. Although there are inherent overlapping
characteristics, our focus is more on the extent of work rather than the
tangential areas of working patterns, work pace and work-life balance.
Specifically, this review presents an insight into:
Working Time Regulations;
The prevalence of working longer hours in the UK;
The causes and consequences of long working hours;
Future trends and key challenges on working hours and health.
2. Working Time Regulations
Working time has traditionally been determined at the local level through
negotiations between employers and employees, or by collective agreement
with the involvement of employee representatives. This has often led to
discrepancies in employee working hours between colleagues within an
organisation as well as between organisations and sectors, with some
individuals being asked or offering to work substantially more than their
contracted hours without the provision of additional benefits such as overtime
pay. Indeed, although there is evidence of a general decline in the UK of
unpaid overtime, some reports suggest that it may take up to 2030 before the
practice of regular weekly unpaid overtime of more than 10 hours is ended
The Working Time Regulations (1998) implement provisions from the original
EU-wide Working Time Directive (93/104/EC), which have been subsequently
amended on a regular basis by UK regulations. The EU Working Time
Directive (93/104/EC) requires employers to limit the working week to 48
hours and to ensure that workers get a minimum of 11 hours rest every 24
hours, one day's rest per week and four weeks paid annual leave. The
Working Time Regulations (1998) came into force on 1 October 1998 and are
the main regulations governing working time in the UK, laying down minimum
conditions relating to weekly working hours, night workers, and break and
annual leave entitlement. Fundamentally in terms of the impact on longer
working hours, UK Working Time Regulations (1998) have secured an
exception to the EU wide 48 hour week ruling, with UK employees aged 18
and over being given the choice to voluntarily ‘opt out’ of this agreement by
way of a written and signed request. There are additional exceptional rules for
some employees such as trainee doctors, young workers and certain workers
in the transport industry. Furthermore, the armed forces, emergency services
and police are excluded in some circumstances, as are jobs where individuals
are free to choose how long they work, e.g. a managing director.
Employees in the UK must be given written particulars of their main terms and
conditions within two months of starting employment, which should state what
hours and working patterns are required for a particular role. Unless
individuals choose to opt-out or work in a sector which has its own specific
rules, most people should not have to work more than an average of 48 hours
a week according to the law (CIPD, 2003).
Working time within UK Working Time Regulations includes:
Normal day-to-day duties as defined within employment contracts
Role related training
Role related travelling time
Time spent working abroad for employees who are normally based in
'On-call' time at work
Paid / unpaid overtime
Working time within UK Working Time Regulations does not include:
Day-to-day travel to and from work
Breaks such as lunch breaks
Paid or unpaid holiday
Sick, maternity, paternity and adoption leave
Evening and day-release courses
‘On-call’ time away from work
Voluntary unpaid overtime
As evident from the law regulating working hours in the UK, although
regulations have been introduced and are in place to protect employees from
excessive work demands, in reality there are various gaps in this legislation
which allow practices around long working hours to continue.
3. Prevalence of Long Working Hours
Whilst recent government policies have emphasised flexible working options
as a way of improving the balance between employee work and life and as a
consequence health and wellbeing, according to the Economic Social and
Research Council the UK long working hours culture remains the main reason
for dissatisfaction at work (Womack, 2004). There is also evidence to suggest
that workers in the UK work much longer hours, take shorter lunch breaks and
have less holidays than most of their European counterparts (White and
Beswick, 2003; ILO, 2007; TUC, 2007). In particular, the research suggests
Even though legislative measures have been introduced as a way of
protecting employees, average working hours have only marginally
decreased over the last decade in the UK generally. Moreover, closer
scrutiny of the data highlights variations with some regions of the UK
actually experiencing increasing working hours;
Only a third of the working population are aware of Working Time
Approximately a quarter of the UK working population work more than
48 hours a week on average, and approximately 9% of workers report
to working over 60 hours a week.
According to 2003 figures, approximately two out of three people who
report to working 48 hours a week on a regular basis, do so without
‘opting out’ of the Working Time Regulations;
One in four employees who have signed an ‘opt-out’ within the Working
Time Regulations said they were given little or no choice about signing
away their rights;
The majority of employees who work more than 48 hours a week
suggest they would like the opportunity to work fewer hours;
Managers and professionals are most likely to work long hours. Two-
thirds of female employees who work longer hours are in managerial
and professional occupations.
Evidence suggests that there is a rhetoric-reality gap (Visser and Williams,
2006) with a need for organisations to focus more on reducing stress and
pressure rather than simply making flexible work practices available.
Moreover, firmer implementation of policies that target a reduction in working
hours could potentially be a major contributing factor to the prevention of
stress at work, reduction of accidents and the improvement of employee
health and wellbeing (The Mental Health Foundation, 2003; ILO, 2007).
4. Causes and Consequences of Long Working Hours
It should not be assumed that there is a direct or linear relationship between
working long work hours and poor health (Sparks, Cooper, Fried and Shirom,
1997). Moreover, a distinction should be made between working hours and
the pace or intensification of work (Kristensen, Bjorner, Christensen and Borg,
2004). Although some studies suggest that long work hours are related to
negative outcomes such as high job demands, emotional exhaustion and
burnout, marital tension, and work-family conflict, other researchers report a
positive relationship between long work hours and outcomes such as high role
control, superior physical health, and low levels of psychological distress and
anxiety (Sparks et al., 1997; Kristensen et al., 2004; Taris, Beckers,
Verhoeven, Geurts, Kompier and van der Linden, 2006). However, it is well
recognised that stress reduces employee well-being, and that excessive or
sustained work pressure, as would be the case for some employees who are
required to work excessive hours, can lead to negative outcomes. In deed,
according to Head, Martikainen, Kumari, Kuper, and Marmot (2002) the
evidence suggests that there is a higher risk of employees suffering from
psychological health problems if they:
Are required to work at a constant fast pace, or are regularly faced with
conflicting priorities, or
Have low levels of recognition, understanding and support from their
Are stressed because they have no control over how their work is
As occupational stress poses a risk to most businesses, with increasing
evidence of the impact on organisations through sickness absenteeism, rising
compensation payments and employee dissatisfaction, it is important to meet
the challenge by dealing with specific issues that could potentially cause
excessive or long-term pressure (Cooper, 1999; Head et al,. 2002).
4.1. What are the Reasons for Working Long Hours?
Increasing pressures at work are highlighted as one of the most fundamental
changes in contemporary society, with rising numbers of employees who work
full-time suggesting that they would like the choice to spend more time at
home. In deed, the long working day and greater workplace demands placed
on individuals are highlighted as the main cause of dissatisfaction for many
employees (Green and Tsitsianis, 2005). Furthermore in addition to working
long hours, recent data suggests that less than half of the workforce actually
use up their full annual leave entitlement and less than two thirds of
employees do not use up their full entitlement to lunch breaks, highlighting
workload pressures and demanding managers as the basis for this (CIPD,
2003). Furthermore, some employees work more than their contracted hours
due to the incessant pressure of their work which prevents them from
completing it within contracted working hours, citing organisational culture,
management style and high levels of personal standards as the main reasons
(CIPD, 2003; TUC, 2007).
Although there is no direct evidence that working longer hours leads to lower
levels of overall work or organisational performance, there are indications
from employees and employers of their concerns about the adverse impact of
long working hours on productivity and quality of output.
Organisations are keen to provide products and services according to
customer needs, including weekends and late nights. As a result patterns of
employment are evidently shifting towards a seven day, twenty four hour
global society. This is supported by data from the UK Labour Force Survey
(2007) which suggests that employees are working increasing levels of
unsocial hours during nights and at weekends.
Recent Labour Force Survey data (March to May 2007) suggests that slightly
over a fifth of people in employment (20.4%) work more than 45 hours a
week. According to Kodz, Davis, Lain, Strebler, Rick, Bates, Cummings and
Meager (2003), this is a relatively high proportion of the workforce in
comparison to European Union norms but is more favourable in comparison
to other developed countries such as Japan and the United States. At 20 days
per annum, the UK workforce is also entitled to less paid leave than the
average European Union workforce but more than their Japanese (17 days)
and the United States (10 days) counterparts.
With full-time managers’ working hours in the UK not significantly differing to
those in the European Union, men aged between 30 and 49 who have
children and work in the private sector work the longest hours in the UK.
Furthermore, long working hours are most common in the manufacturing
industry (Kodz et al., 2003).
Spurgeon, Harrington and Cooper (1997) suggest that longer working hours
could potentially lead to unsafe and inefficient working practices. In deed,
some organisations have a culture of presenteeism where employees are
pressured into arriving early and leaving late, or face the consequence of
being seen as uncommitted. The evidence suggests that there is a link
between working hours and risk of injury, with more than half of injuries and
illnesses related to jobs with longer working hours or overtime (Goldenhar,
Williams and Swanson, 2003; Josten, Ng-A-Tham and Thierry, 2003).
4.2. What are the Consequences of Working Long Hours on
Mental Capital and Mental Wellbeing?
There are clear indications from the literature (e.g. Bunting, 2004; Coats and
Max, 2005) that long working hours and weekend work may cause serious
disruption to family life. However, not all employees who work long hours are
unhappy with their work-life balance or fear that their working life is negatively
impacting on their domestic life. With an increasing number of households in
which both adults work, there may be less opportunity to spend time together
and people may be put under added strain. As a result parents or carers who
adopt such working patterns are more likely than others to report the influence
of work on curtailing involvement in home activities. Working long hours for
both parents is associated with less involvement in children’s activities and
frequent disruption in family life. New forms of work and changing work
practices can penetrate and reshape home lives. The lives of parents and
children are interlinked as are home and work lives. If both parents in a family
are in paid employment, it stands to reason that there will be less time and
energy to participate in other activities. This will of course put people under
When policies are being developed, the multiple perspectives of partners,
fathers, mothers, carers and children need to be considered, as work effects
can ‘spillover’ into home lives and home experiences impinge on work
behaviour and performance (Visser and Williams, 2006).
A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation (2003), suggests that more
than 60% of workers reported to experiencing a negative impact on their
personal lives as a direct consequence of long working hours. Almost half of
those surveyed stated that they had sacrificed physical exercise in order to
work long hours, with similar numbers suggesting that that they had lost out
on spending time with their partners, or sacrificed social activities with friends.
As a result, a number of participants reported to feelings of anxiousness,
depression, and other mental health problems, including attempted suicide.
Although the evidence based is limited to specific sectors and occupational
groups, there are clear indicators from the literature of the negative effect of
working long hours and an increase in health and safety incidents. The
evidence suggests that long hours working, particularly in conjunction with
fatigue and sleep deprivation, have an adverse impact on performance,
including increasing rates of error, intensification of work and negative
interpersonal conflict (Kristensen et al., 2004). Jobs with long working hours
are not more risky simply due to the inherent risky nature of the job.
Moreover, long working hours indirectly cause workplace accidents through
secondary issues such as fatigue and stress, with knock on effects on
colleagues or customers / patients (Bacon, Blyton and Dastmalchan, 2005).
5. So What Do We Need to Consider About Working
Hours in the Future?
The Demands of an Increasingly Diverse Workforce
One might argue that firmer policies, and not so much rhetoric, are
required to ensure that flexible employment is available to serve the
needs of an increasingly diverse workforce, including more options for
working parents, carers, disabled and older people.
The demand for remote working is likely to continue to rise with the
development of technology and communication, and the
implementation of policies to reduce travel congestion. Of course this is
a win-win situation for employers and employees alike if it is managed
properly. However, policy makers at governmental and organisational
levels must also take into account the impact this has on work-life
balance and working hours.
Patterns of Employment
The pattern of employment is likely to continue to change with ever-
increasing demands from customers for seven day, twenty four hour
service requiring people to work unsociable, and perhaps for some
groups of people, longer hours during weekends, evenings and nights.
Competitiveness of UK Economy
Future predictions of the labour market point to a shortage of suitably
qualified younger staff entering the employment marketplace,
suggesting that employers will need to work harder to retain
experienced staff. Organisations should also be aware of the knock on
effects on colleagues of workload arising as a result of absenteeism,
along with the potential loss of human and intellectual capital and costs
associated with retraining new staff.
Increasing Healthcare and Social Security Costs
In terms of absenteeism and early retirement due to ill health, apart
from a host of ethical and moral dilemmas that deserve due
consideration, the business case for controlling working hours include
the increased costs associated with earlier and therefore potentially
longer drawing of pension and social security payments. Moreover, the
situation is made even more complex if we take into consideration the
national and indeed international debate on ageing populations,
coupled with rising pension costs due to longer life-spans and fewer
contributors paying into pension systems due to falling birth rates.
Our review of research on working hours and mental wellbeing highlights the
adverse impact of working longer hours on personal happiness, job
satisfaction, workplace accidents, irritability, exhaustion, depression and
relationships. Although there is evidence to suggest that, on the face of it, the
introduction of Working Time Regulations may have had some impact on
curbing excessive demands, some organisational cultures in the UK continue
to expect employees to work excessively long hours. It is also apparent that in
order to dedicate more of their lives to work, people neglect activities that are
known to protect them from the onset of mental health problems (e.g. sports
There is a need for more research into what could be considered optimal
working hours in terms of balancing productivity and wellbeing. There is also a
need to confirm whether the introduction of legislative measures have simply
eradicated long working hours culture or, as is evident from increasing
prevalence rates of work-related stress and bullying, that some managers
have become more subtle when placing demands on employees to increase
their productivity levels.
Bacon, N., Blyton, P., and Dastmalchian, A. (2005). The Significance of
Working Time Arrangements Accompanying the Introduction of Teamworking:
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CIPD (2003). Living to Work? London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Coats, D. and Max, C. (2005). Healthy Work: Productive Workplaces – Why
the UK Needs More Good Jobs. London: The Work Foundation.
Cooper, C. L. (1999). Can We Live with the Changing Nature of Work?
Journal of Managerial Psychology. 14(7/8): 569-572.
Goldenhar, L. M., Williams, L. J., and Swanson, N. G. (2003). Modelling
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Construction Labourers. Work & Stress. 17(3): 218-240.
Green, F. and Tsitsianis, N. (2005). An Investigation of National Trends in Job
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