In early 2021, Professor Phil Taylor of Strathclyde University embarked on some ground-breaking empirical research in the UK to determine what workers want in terms of reduced working hours and better work-life balance on behalf of the Institute of Employment Rights (IER). The research was funded by the Alex Ferry Foundation, a charitable body formed in the wake of an industrial campaign for a 35-hour working week, led by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU). Professor Taylor has a keen interest in working time and has undertaken research over a couple of decades, with particular reference to intensification of work and the pressures on workers resulting from greater demand.
Despite the constraints of Covid-19 and lockdown, Professor Taylor managed to survey of almost 2,400 workers from Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, Jaguar Land Rover, and Bentley in the manufacturing sector, garnering rich data on which to base his analysis. Entitled ‘Redistribution of Working-Time: Achieving a Better Work-Life Balance,’ what has emerged is a really significant piece of research, going beyond the debate around the four-day week to explore different models of reducing and redistribution working time. As Ian Waddell of the CSEU says in his introduction to the report:
“This report is the largest survey of the hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations of workers on the matter of working time ever undertaken in the UK, with over two thousand individuals oﬀering detailed responses. Their views and answers to the questions posed are fascinating and informative for union negotiators, company managers and policymakers alike. They go far beyond a narrow agenda for a four-day week and cover diverse topics such as the importance of mental and physical well-being, health and safety, productivity, job satisfaction, more family time and general happiness in the minds of workers when they think about working time.”
The report found that workers in these industries are putting in longer hours than their counterparts in any country in Europe. It also found that they are suffering from very high rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, and musculoskeletal disorders.
Key report findings:
- More than 9-in-10 (91.7 per cent) are working contacted hours greater than those for the UK workforce overall. Overtime added to the length of working time. Just under one half work overtime at an average of 4 hours and 53minutes per week. Almost one-in-ten work 10 hours overtime each week.
- The main reasons for often excessive overtime include: money and ﬁnancial necessity; workload, volume of work and understaﬃng; business needs, compulsion, or expectation.
- Almost two-thirds work permanent days shifts, but rotating and double shifts account for signiﬁcant minorities. Four-in-ﬁve report working hours spread over ﬁve days or nights.
- Workers, generally, have little choice over the shifts they work, or their ability to change shifts at short notice. Nevertheless, workers report that managers in the main do respond positively to workers’ need to change shifts to respond to family circumstances.
- Around 6-in-10 report having ﬂexi-time arrangements in place and comments reveal both the beneﬁts and diﬃculties encountered. Of those without ﬂexi-time, 71.2 per cent report that they would like to see it implemented.
- An important set of ﬁndings relates to respondents’ preferences for possible changes to working time; 93 per cent report their wish to have reduced working time without loss of pay, 88 per cent desire extended weekends and 82 per cent fewer shifts. For those to whom it applied, almost 9-in-10 stated that they wanted ﬂexi shifts, either to deal with caring responsibilities or to ﬁt in with their partners’ lives.
- Additional reasons are given for shorter working time. Three stand out. Better work balance was seen as important by 96.8 per cent, improved mental health by 93.6 per cent and physical health by 88.9 per cent. Three-quarters believed shorter working time would be very important for improving mental health. Three-quarters also believed that fewer hours would be important for relieving the pressure of work.
- Very larger percentages saw being able to spend time with their partner or family as important. One-in-two reported the importance of reductions in commuting time. Finally, in support of the business case, four-in-ﬁve believed that shorter working time would improve eﬃciency at work.
- Respondents provide additional detail on the reasons for wanting reduced working time, putting ﬂesh on the bones of the statistical ﬁndings regarding fewer days and longer weekends. Other stress the improvements in productivity and eﬃciency that would result.
- In comments, many re-iterate the importance of no loss of pay, unsurprising in the context of the cost-of-living increase underway at the time of the survey. A number do report they would be prepared to accept some loss of pay in return for reduced hours, but this number was dwarfed by those insistent on no loss of pay.
- A strong theme to emerge relates to those workers, who ordinarily, pre-Covid-19, would have been oﬃce-based. They largely express a desire to remain working at home, or on a hybrid basis. However, a minority wished to return to the oﬃce, reporting isolation and the negative consequences for their mental health resulting from the experience of working from home.
- The Covid-19 inﬂuence is clear and conﬁrms that the experience of the pandemic has prompted a re- appraisal of attitudes to work and work-life balance. More than four-in-ﬁve believe the impact of Covid-19 increased their appreciation of the time they spend with family. Nine-in-ten see work-life balance as more important and believe Covid-19 has engendered a greater appreciation of their physical and mental health. More than three-quarters agree that Covid-19 has made them more aware of the need for a shorter working time.
- That the last two years has taken its toll on workers is evidenced by the fact that majorities believe that their physical and mental health has deteriorated over this period. Large numbers report, again, that shorter working time would beneﬁt a great deal their physical health (57.3 per cent), their mental health (71.8 per cent) and their well-being (74.2 per cent).
- The relief from pressure at work that reduced working time would bring is further suggested by the degree of pressure workers feel they are under on a normal day, 62.6 per cent reporting that they are either very or quite pressurised.
- Diverse reasons are reported as contributing to this pressure. The most frequently cited in descending order are workload, intensity of work, having to meet targets/KPIs, not enough workers to do the job, pace of work, pressure from supervisors/managers, not enough time between tasks, fear of making mistakes, and not given enough information to do the job.
- The extent of presenteeism, workers coming to work when unwell, is a cause for concern. 1-in-7 report coming to work when ill either several times a week or several times a month. Diverse reasons are given. The most important is not being ill enough to warrant staying oﬀ, commitment/dedication to the company or colleagues, pressure of work, the way the sickness absence policy is implemented and the fear of getting put on a disciplinary. In comments, a number reported how they were fearful of being managed out of the organisation.
- This report concludes with the most important ﬁndings of all for they relate to how shorter working time might be achieved in the engineering, automotive, shipbuilding and manufacturing sites and perhaps even more widely. 93.8 per cent declare their support for a union campaign over shorter working hours, with almost 73.4 per cent stating they would ‘strongly support’ such a campaign. The ﬁnal words are those of a Rolls Royce worker, with more than 10 years length of service, who expresses the aspirations of many of this survey’s participants:
“Reduced working time without loss of pay is highly important to me and I feel like the Union should make this the highest item on their agenda.”
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 882,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2020/21 and 470,000 workers were afflicted by a musculoskeletal disorder, conditions that have relevance for workers in the manufacturing and engineering industries.
The world’s biggest ever four-day working week pilot is currently underway in the UK with over 70 companies and 3,300 workers taking part. A survey taken at the halfway point of the six-month pilot showed that 86% of the companies taking part are likely to consider retaining the policy after the trial period.
Ian Waddell added:
“The Covid pandemic has caused a huge shift in the attitudes of workers to the time they spend at work and the balance with the rest of their lives outside work. This report should give the Trade Union movement the confidence to launch full-throated campaigns for a step change in working time with no reduction in pay. It is over thirty years since the last substantial reduction in working time. Productivity has increased exponentially since then, but the rewards have not been shared equally with workers. A reduction in working time with no loss of pay is long overdue.”
Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said:
“British workers across the economy are desperate for a shorter working week. The nine to five, five-day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. All the evidence shows that a shorter working week with no loss of pay can be a win-win for both workers and employers.”
Ben Sellers, Director of the Institute of Employment, said:
“It’s been a pleasure to work with Phil Taylor of Strathclyde University, the Alex Ferry Foundation and the CSEU on this project. It couldn’t be more timely, with the Government under Liz Truss reportedly planning to scrap long-held commitments to the Working Time Directive and forcing working time, stress, and poor mental health up in the process. This report offers the steppingstones to a different direction which puts worker welfare at the centre – a much more sensible approach, both for employees and business.”