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Monday, Oct. 18, 2004

COMMITMENT TO FEWER HOURS

Balancing work with other ways of life


LONDON -- Alan Milburn, the British secretary of state for health, resigned last year to "spend more time with his family." This excuse has often been used to cover some misdemeanor or a falling out with colleagues, but in this case it seems to have been genuine.

Milburn felt that his commitments and his work did not give him enough time to be with his family and see his children as they were growing up. He was, however, reappointed to the Cabinet recently and given oversight of preparations for the Labour Party in the next election expected next spring.

Why did he again accept office? Did he find that family politics and backbiting were even less palatable than the equivalent in government? Or was he simply bored with his family? Did ambition for power make him decide to forgo family relationships in favor of a return to government. Only Milburn knows the answers to these questions, and he is hardly likely to give honest public answers at this stage in his career. Perhaps he may do so when he comes to write the inevitable political memoir.

The Milburn story highlights a real problem, though: how to achieve the right balance in our lives between work and leisure, and between job and family.

In the United States, few employees can take long holidays, and many still only get two-weeks paid vacation. The long-hours syndrome seems to be well-entrenched especially in New York.

In many offices in Japan, taking off more than a few days in a row seems to be unacceptable to fellow employees and to management. Japanese apparently fear if they are absent their work won't be done and that it will suggest they lack commitment to the company and their job.

Alternatively, they may fear that no one will notice their absence and that it will become apparent that their job is redundant. Similarly, anyone who leaves for the day before his or her boss is likely to be frowned on as a shirker. Yet going out drinking with colleagues after work seems to be regarded as necessary for "harmony" and to confirm commitments. The damaging effect of these drinking sessions on family relationships is not thought to be important.

In European countries, not only are the hours that can be worked regulated and limited, but lengthy holidays are specified by law with stipulations about maternity and even paternity leave. In August, many factories and offices are closed. The foreign tourist in Paris during that time frequently finds restaurants and shops shuttered for "les vacances." Government offices maintain only skeleton staffs.

In Spain and Italy, especially but not solely during summer months, offices and shops are generally shut from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. for the siesta.

The French 35-hour hour week has been a drag on the economy and has not always well served those for whom it was designed. The idea that there is a "lump of work" and that limiting hours will lead to a reduction in unemployment has been shown to be nonsense. It has instead entrenched old-fashioned practices and reduced competitiveness.

French employers are demanding greater flexibility, as are their counterparts in Germany. Unions, reluctantly, are beginning to have to accept changes in working practices if only to save jobs from being shifted to Eastern European countries that have recently joined the European Union.

In Britain, the situation is somewhere between that in America and Europe. Workers in London engaged in banking, finance and law put in absurdly long hours. The old adage "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy" is accepted by most British people, but it often gets only lip service. Managers say competitive pressures and demands make it impossible to allow adequate leisure time.

Deals must be completed by deadlines set by clients, and if this means working through the night, so be it. Staff can, it is reckoned, be rewarded and thus retained through systems of bonuses and other "perks," including payment of gymnasium fees and provision of expensive motor cars, although such perks attract additional taxes.

The long-hours culture is not universal, but it can and does cause health problems. It leads to binge drinking and stress-related illnesses that are now more frequent in offices where competition to achieve is great. Stress leads to psychological ailments and, in some cases, to men and women "burning out" by the time they enter middle age. Early retirement may then be unavoidable. But early retirements have to be paid for and lead to the loss of experienced workers.

The British continue to argue against pressures to adopt continental labor rigidities. The ironic Law of Cecil Northcote Parkinson -- that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" -- has not been forgotten. Government offices and companies, however, need to be frequently reminded of it.

At one stage in the information-technology revolution it was suggested that IT was opening the way for a major reduction in work and a significant increase in leisure. It is now apparent that this was, at least in part, an illusion. We must work to live, but we do not live simply to work!

One basic problem is that not many people know how to use their free time sensibly. For many, unlimited leisure would bore them silly; for others, without the necessary education or inclination, it would mean becoming couch potatoes and watching endless sporting events and game shows on TV.

Benjamin Disraeli, the great 19th century British prime minister noted that "increased means and increased leisure are the two main civilizers of man," but they will not be "civilizers" unless we learn to use wisely the leisure that modern means of production have accorded us.

It is not possible to lay down by law the right balance between work, leisure and family commitments. We all have to work this out for ourselves. It will be different for each of us depending on the nature of our work, interests and family commitments. For some people, job satisfaction is much more important than money. For others, in less satisfying jobs, monetary rewards may be the most significant. For everyone, job environment matters greatly. This is more a function of good management and the behavior of individual managers.

Which of us has not at times been upset by a bad temper and bullying in the workplace? Yet, while rules and regulations may help prevent health and safety failures, they cannot cover all aspects of human behavior.

Legislation needs to be permissive rather than prescriptive. Governments can, and should, move to encourage a sensible balance between work, family and leisure.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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