Do the British really have longer working hours than any other country in Europe? That claim is often made but a new analysis of employment data by a leading labour economist suggests that it is no more than a partial truth.
Professor Francis Green, of the Institute of Education, University of London, says that male full-time employees in the UK did have the longest working week (43.7 hours) in the EU in 2011 – the latest year for which figures are available. This is more than two hours longer than the European average of 41.1 hours.
However, his analysis of the European Union Labour Force Survey data shows that when all workers are included in the calculations – women, the self-employed, and part-timers – the UK's average working week (36.4 hours) ranks 23rd out of the 27 EU countries. The EU average is 37.4 hours.
The European country with the longest overall working week is actually Greece (42.1 hours) while the Dutch enjoy the shortest week (30.5 hours).
So why is the claim about Britons having the longest working week so often heard? Professor Green suspects that there is an element of sexism -- male full-time employees and the British workforce are seen as one and the same.
"Working more hours is variously supposed to make Britons seem more hard-working, yet perhaps less happy and more inefficient," he adds. "Nationalist self-deprecation vies in British culture with nationalist aggrandisement, each wanting to make British workers somehow special.
"The data, however, suggest that there has been a slow but steady decrease in the length of the UK working week from the mid-1990s right through to the start of the present economic troubles."
Professor Green's study also examines the overall quality of jobs in the UK in comparison with other nations. Again, he found a very mixed picture.
Yes, salaries in the UK are the most unequal in the European Union, he says. And yes, it is easier to fire staff in the UK than in any of the other leading developed nations apart from the United States and Canada.
However, Professor Green questions the idea that many British jobs are of relatively low quality. "Job quality comprises more than just wages and hours," he says in a paper published today by the Institute's LLAKES research centre, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
He investigated various dimensions of job quality using data from the 2010 European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions survey. He looked at monthly earnings and factors such as social relationships at work, job security, quality of the workplace environment and pace of work.
This exercise showed that UK workers are better off in some ways than those in Sweden and Germany, who are often said to have enviable employment arrangements. For example, in Sweden 9 per cent of jobs involve significant exposure to smoke, fumes, powder or dust, compared with 6 per cent of UK jobs. Similarly, 47 per cent of German workers say their manager "helps and supports" them always or most of the time. In the UK the proportion is 73 per cent.
Professor Green also notes that the UK has strong anti-discrimination and unfair practices laws, a long-standing and largely effective system of employment arbitration, a resilient if reduced union sector, and a hefty set of health and safety regulations. Even so, he believes that UK policy-makers should pay more attention to the intensity of work and declining discretion over the tasks that employees undertake. In combination, these problems can cause strain and mental ill-health. Some recent evidence suggests that they help to account for rising payouts for incapacity benefit in Britain.
"The main exceptional feature of the UK labour market needing attention is, however, its excessive pay inequality," Professor Green says. "The data I have looked at provide justification for the ongoing calls to reform boardroom pay and the campaign for the Living Wage. A relatively high proportion of British workers have low earnings and many experience in-work poverty.
"For example, the earnings ratio comparing professional workers with service and sales workers is 2.30:1 in Britain, but just 1.39 in Italy, 1.47 in Sweden, and 1.99 in Germany."
Professor Green also cautions that working conditions may be under threat because of the continuing economic crisis and the high unemployment rate (currently 7.8 per cent). However, he adds that the reduction in the working week has been a positive development. "That and the relative flexibility of working hours in Britain, merit some celebration, even if there remains much to do," he says.
Francis Green is Professor of Work and Education Economics at the IOE. His paper, "Is Britain such a bad place to work? The level and dispersion of job quality in comparative European perspective", will be published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES) at 8am on Friday, January 18. It will be downloadable from http://www.llakes.org