Rethinking Working Hours in the UK: Insights and Trends

Image by Jan Mateboer from Pixabay

In a recent interview with Virgin Radio, Labour Party leader and now-Prime Minister Keir Starmer sparked a debate about work-life balance by declaring he would not work past 6pm on Fridays if he was elected, according to The Sun. 


Starmer emphasised the importance of protecting time for his children and wife, Lady Victoria, stating that this approach not only benefits his family life but also enhances his decision-making abilities. 


This stance has been met with mixed reactions. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, known for his relentless work schedule, criticised the idea, suggesting that the demands of being Prime Minister require more flexibility. 


Despite the criticism, Starmer remains firm in his belief that balancing work and family time is crucial, even in high-pressure roles like that of the Prime Minister. 


His comments come at a time when discussions about work schedules and productivity are gaining momentum globally.


The Global Trend Toward Flexible Work Schedules

The conversation about flexible work schedules is not limited to the UK. Globally, there is a growing interest in alternative work arrangements and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these discussions, with many employees and employers reevaluating the importance of workplace flexibility. 


According to KPMG’s 2024 U.S. CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, 30% of major U.S. companies are considering alternative work schedules, such as a four-day workweek. Additionally, 74% are introducing more initiatives to promote mental well-being, including digital wellness solutions, mindfulness seminars, resilience workshops, and coaching sessions.


Recently, the U.S. Senate Examined Four-Day Workweek Bill, following Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposal of a bill which aims to implement a 32-hour workweek without reducing workers’ pay.


According to Euronews, trade unions across Europe are also urging governments to implement the four-day workweek, but so far, governments are hesitant to officially adopt this model. 


Belgian employees gained the right, in 2022, to complete a full workweek in four days instead of the usual five without a loss of salary. The new law, which came into effect in 2021, allows employees to choose between working four or five days a week, but it does not reduce the total number of hours worked, merely condensing them into fewer days. 


In February 2024, in Scotland, the government launched a four-day working week trial for some public services. While in the UK, a major study conducted in 2022 showed promising results for a four-day workweek. The trial involved 61 organizations and revealed that work intensity decreased while job satisfaction increased.  The study found significant improvements in employees’ physical and mental health, work-life balance, and overall job performance. 92% of businesses planned to continue with these flexible work arrangements, a 71% decrease in employee burnout was reported and a 35% average increase in revenue.


Photo by Ricardo Resende on Unsplash

The Reality of Working Hours in the UK

According to Statista, as of April 2024, the average full-time worker in the United Kingdom clocks 36.6 hours per week.  However, IRIS Global Workforce Management points out that this statistic doesn’t necessarily reflect productivity. A study by Vouchercloud found that the average UK office worker is productive for only 2 hours and 53 minutes each workday. 


Assuming an eight-hour workday, this means office workers are unproductive for 5 hours and 7 minutes daily, resulting in a considerable loss of time and money for employers. The primary distractions cited included social media (44 minutes) and browsing news websites (1 hour and 5 minutes) daily, followed by discussing non-work-related activities with colleagues (40 minutes), smoking breaks (23 minutes), and making hot drinks (17 minutes), among others.


The study, which surveyed 1,989 UK office workers aged over 18, also found that 54% of respondents felt that intermittent breaks made the workday more bearable and believed their productivity benefited from these breaks.


Photo by Karolina Kaboompics from Pexels

Embracing Modern Work Practices

Modern work practices are evolving, with an increasing focus on efficiency rather than the length of the workday. Employers are encouraged to structure workdays into manageable chunks, honor break schedules, and promote activities that allow employees to fully disconnect during breaks.


The report “GENERATIONS: Unlocking the Productivity Potential of a Multigenerational Workforce” by LSE and Protiviti highlights that companies can better leverage the advantages of multigenerational teams by adopting inclusive work practices that accommodate different age groups. Furthermore, allowing flexible work schedules or remote work can accommodate the diverse needs and peak productivity times of individual employees. 


In the UK, employees have the right to request changes to their hours, start or finish times, workdays, or work location from their first day at a job, through ‘making a statutory application.’ To support modern work practices, tools such as time trackers and Pomodoro timers are also increasingly adopted.  According to Luxafor, the Pomodoro break technique is beneficial for office workers, offering a structured approach to tackling task lists and managing distractions during work hours.  Developed by Francesco Cirillo, the core idea of the technique is to break work time into 25-minute intervals (known as Pomodoro sessions) followed by a 5-minute break. After completing four Pomodoros, you take a longer break of 20 to 30 minutes. This cycle then repeats. This time management method is simple to integrate into a typical workday and is suggested to be able to condense a 40-hour workweek into just 16.7 hours.


Time trackers or time tracking software also help employees monitor how they spend their work hours, providing insights into areas where they can improve efficiency.  They offer multiple features such as reminders, breaks tracking, and auto clock ins/outs to keep the workers in check and assist them with their daily tasks.


As discussions about work and productivity continue, it is clear that attitudes are changing. The traditional 9-to-5 workday is being re-evaluated in favor of more dynamic and employee-centric approaches.

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