The UK has a culture of overworking will not be news to most. The average working hours in the UK are amongst the highest in Europe at an average of 42.5 hours, whilst the EU average is 41.1 hours. These additional working hours deliver no productivity gains, indeed productivity in the UK is the second lowest in the G7 in relation to GDP per hour worked.
We know longer hours do not translate to better or more work but instead to burnout. In 2018/19, stress and depression accounted for 44% of work-related illness and 54% of working days lost were due to ill health. Poor mental health is now forecast to be the major cause of work-related illness.
The pandemic has worsened this situation with the prevalence of mental illness now 49% higher compared to 2017-19 with the mental health impacts disproportionately affecting women, particularly those with caregiving responsibilities. It seems clear that the pandemic has continued the trend of increasing the intensification of work.
The rapid switch to remote working for many of us has almost erased barriers that were already under strain between our home and working lives. Factors such as constant availability for meetings and responding to emails have worsened our well-being through increased overworking. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that individuals in these circumstances were working an additional 28 hours per month on average.
Leave the Office Early Day was introduced to increase awareness of how introducing adjustments to the way we work can improve productivity, well-being and happiness, and challenge this culture of overwork by championing a better work-life balance.
Benefits include better physical and mental health, a fairer society with more equal share of caring roles between parents, increased productivity, a sustainable lifestyle and a reduced carbon footprint.
Many companies are realising that employee well-being has a positive effect on productivity. Innocent Drinks champion a healthy living culture that includes running a weekly drop-in “people clinic” for staff to get practical advice and support for any issues in their personal or work lives.
Governments including Germany and New Zealand are also going further in exploring whether a four day working week will have a positive impact on productivity. Spain is already planning to pilot a 4 day working week for businesses interested in the idea.
On June 2, well-being at work should be top of the agenda of all businesses, and encouragement of employees out of the door early will bear fruit over time, for the business and the workforce, together otherwise known as “all of us”.
Nicholas Clarke, Professor of Organisational Behaviour & HRM and Deputy Dean (People & Planning), Kent Business School, University of Kent