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Society > Working Life >

Live to Work: Integration or Imbalance?

Paper ID: 83 Last updated: 09/08/2010 13:51:55
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Regional When: 3-10yrs How Fast: Years
0 people thought this paper expanded their thinking bullet
Keywords: bullet work, productivity, business, income, mental health, happiness, life satisfaction

Summary bullet

The future of working practice and culture in the era of globalisation will significantly shape the health and wellbeing of our society. A pervasive culture of work may emerge in which economic security and prosperity come at the price of excessive working hours and a deterioration in health and happiness. [1] There are, however, other less pessimistic possibilities for our working future that may fundamentally revise our understanding of both life and work.

Discussion bullet

A number of factors are fuelling the trend towards longer working hours in the UK and, to varying degrees, other developed economies. These include increased global and national economic competition, and factors affecting job security such as the migration of skilled workers to economic centres, increasing female participation and higher numbers of graduates in the labour market. Previous falls in working hours have been attributed to increased affluence. As emerging economies move up the value chain, working hours in the UK may increase in order to maintain competitiveness. [2] A move towards a more entrepreneurial economy may also increase working hours given that UK entrepreneurs work on average more than 50 hours a week. [52]

The speed and ubiquity of IT-enabled communication and the move towards a more "24 hour" consumer society are also creating pressures on employers and employees to work longer to maintain their competitiveness. Britain's full-time workers put in the longest hours in Europe, at 43.6 a week compared with the EU average of 40.3. [3] The number of people (reportedly) working over 48 hours stands at 13%. One in six workers is working more than 60 hours. However, European working hours are on average much lower than those in the United States. [4]

Workers do not always reap the economic rewards of working longer hours. Much of the current increase in working hours is due to overtime, for which manual labourers get paid but many managerial and professional employees do not. The latter are often likely to be engaging in overtime work for personal ambition/promotional and/or job security reasons. [5] Britons put in 36 million free hours of overtime in each year, saving employers an estimated £23 billion. The current challenging economic climate has made employers more reluctant to recruit new staff and some instead work existing employees harder. Employees themselves may feel less secure in their jobs and be more willing to accept the longer working weeks.

It should also be noted that long hours are not necessarily correlated with increased productivity. Despite their comparatively longer working week, British workers are on average less productive than their European counterparts, notably France and Germany. [6] The productivity gap has been attributed to the working preferences of Generation Y employees (born since 1980), teleworking, and performance measures that record tasks completed rather than time spent in the office. This combination of factors may improve both productivity and work-life balance. [7]

If this trend continues to develop over the next 10 years there may be a number of adverse effects on health, life satisfaction and happiness. A culture of excessive time at work can give rise to extreme problems. The Japanese call it "karoshi" and the Chinese, "guolaosi": literally working oneself to death. [3] Excessive is, however, a relative term. What for some may be an enjoyable and necessary input into their working lives may for another be an intolerable strain on their health and happiness. Individuals at different stages in life, with different temperaments, job descriptions and lifestyle priorities may adopt a variety of approaches to the management of their working time. The extent to which it is government's role to intervene in this is at the heart of the debate.

As companies become larger and assume greater responsibility for their employees' welfare, so the division between work and home life may be eroded. Managing these changes will be a big issue of the future and companies will need a workforce that can adapt to this.

Implications bullet

Working is linked to a number of societal problems. Relationships may suffer as a result of poor work-life balance or being overworked. [8] Overworked parents may be unable to provide their children with sufficient attention, leading to greater likelihood of anti-social behaviour. [9] Some suggest that children will become institutionalised if childcare and nursery provision continues to expand at its current rate. [10] Children may begin to identify more with their peer group than their parents should childcare become the norm.

However, it might be that the negative effects of institutionalising children mean that house-parenting becomes more popular and more accepted. Having at least one parent available to look after children at all times could even become a government priority, and flexible working arrangements might be designed accordingly. [11], [12]

Declining support for gender equality as a result of concerns that women playing a full role in the workforce do so at the expense of family life could mean that we move back towards a traditional division of household labour. [13] For example, extending maternity rights for women may encourage employers to discriminate against women. [14] Removing societal expectations about traditional gender roles through more effective education, alongside making working roles more flexible, ending long hours culture and challenging discriminatory attitudes may allow greater equality of opportunity in the workplace in the future. [15]

The rise of work-based communities, with the majority of relationships based around colleagues, could lead not only to the breakdown of family ties, but also to the erosion of aspects of society that are not work based. Social and friendship networks may become almost exclusively work-based. The workplace may become a one stop shop for all personal or parental needs through the provision of gyms, medical treatment, social spaces and even sleeping arrangements, [16] perhaps even schools. Employers could create foundation schools for their workforce and even train children in the skills their firm requires. A longer hours culture might also encourage further disengagement from voluntary, civic and political activities. [17], [3]

We may instead see an exodus from traditional workplaces and an increase in home-working. Changes facilitated by ever improving communications technologies such as high-speed broadband and even holograms may mean we move away from balancing work and life and instead have to integrate the two. [18] Employees may make better use of down-time when commuting, and virtual, collaborative communications may increasingly make flexible working practices a reality. [19], [20] Of course, technology may also amplify stress. In the information age, individuals may have less control of their work given “we have moved from designing a schedule that real people can execute in whatever time it takes them, to a program which people can monitor but can’t affect.” [21] Employers may seek to compensate for increasing working hours by making them more flexible and increasing provisions for working from home. [22]

Gender roles may be redefined by a move to work-life integration as the binary difference between work and home becomes less relevant. At the same time, employers may come to recognise that flexible working practices allow not only a more satisfied, ‘family-friendly’ workforce but also greater productivity. [23], [24], [25] However, rationing of flexible working may be necessary and could be a source of tension among employees. [26]

The pressure to get work done would remain, and stresses from the workplace may increasingly encroach on domestic life. Personal health may be significantly affected by work and particularly work-related stress. Depression in both men and women is often the result of work stress, [27] in particular relating to the level of demand and control experienced by an individual in the workplace. Job insecurity may also be a cause of stress, particularly in men, and the imbalance between work and family life is the strongest factor associated with mental disorders. [28] This could lead to extended periods of time off work and rising incapacity benefits, which could mean the introduction of more stringent and conditional welfare provision tied not just to the behaviour and performance of workers, but also their families and those for whom they are responsible. [29] Unsustainable increases in working hours may lead to an imperative for 'smarter' and more flexible working. [50] There may also be a greater promotion of psychological therapy in the workplace. [51]

Job stress is more likely in lower skilled occupations, perhaps as a result of low levels of control and greater job insecurity. Given the large supply of low-skilled cheap labour in developing economies and the relatively high proportion of the British population with low skills, stress-related illness could particularly affect lower-skilled, male workers in the UK. [30] This may lead among other things to protectionist attitudes, particularly as many already consider globalisation to be responsible for their long working hours. [31]

Differences in working hours and remuneration among different social groups may increase inequality and entrench the lack of social mobility in developed countries. In the US, the bottom 20% of earners saw a pay rise of 6.4% between 1979 and 2000, and the top 20% saw 70%. [32] As men are far more likely to work overtime than women, this may lead to increased wage inequality between men and women. Women may be increasingly likely to be deterred from entering sectors that have a long-hours culture, thereby losing influence. Where senior managerial jobs are reliant on long hours, this too could hamper efforts to close the pay gap, as women with caring responsibilities are likely to be excluded from these roles. [33], [34]

Finally, the balance of power between employee and employer could shift significantly in the coming years. Businesses and workplaces may start to act more like miniature democracies in which decisions are made by voting. More organisations could move to decentralised operating models in which formal polling of workers becomes the norm. [35] An example of this would be the Mondragon Cooperative Coporation [36] in which workers own the company and can elect directors while being able to vote on other issues. Some organisations may be designed as "guilds" whose mission is to support employees. [37] This may reduce workplace-related stress and illness, particularly depression. [38] Employees may also be empowered if there is a change in the labour market and employees have more choice over their employers. Young people may start to refuse "meaningless jobs" on a mass scale, instead choosing ‘ethical’ careers [39] which emphasise aspects of work such as control, democracy, consultation and corporate social responsibility. [40]

Early indicators bullet

Record number of commuter suicides in London
Emergence of new generation of work-based entertainment, socialising, childcare and health facilities
Foundation schools sponsored by major local employers
Proportion of workforce working at home rises

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet


Global and national economic competition
Increasing emphasis on material wealth and consumerism
Competition within job markets from higher female participation and higher numbers of graduates
Poorly organised workplace
Mobile, networked IT communications
Economic downturn makes people feel they have to work harder or longer to retain their positions


Increased pressure for the UK to fully opt in to the European Working Time Directive
Many European countries recently decreasing working hours [4]
Awareness of health risks
Strength of values placing family/socialisation and happiness above economic achievement
Automation of time-intensive tasks
Rebellion by office workers
Increase in part-time work with aging population

Parallels & Precedents bullet

1990s Tokyo commuter life
Working hours increasing in some countries
Dickensian England

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The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.