Professions with the longest working hours: do longer hours mean working harder?

We need to break the idea that how hard we work is linked to the hours spent at work.

A new study this month from recruitment firm Rayner Personnel has looked at the professions that work the most hours each week.

It found that across the country we work an average of around 33.1 hours per week, but certain jobs see workers putting in far longer shifts.

For example, electricians were found to be working 41.4 hours per week, just ahead of police officers (41.2 hours) and plumbers (40.1 hours).

At the other end of the scale, cleaners worked an average of 20.8 hours, while others towards the bottom of the table included teachers (28.6 hours) and nurses (31.3 hours).

But the thing about the study that stuck in my craw wasn’t the actual numbers themselves, but the fact that on a couple of occasions the study referred to electricians as the ‘hardest working profession’ based on the fact that they apparently put in the longest hours.

And that’s absolute cobblers.

Putting in a shift

When it comes to work, the reality is that the number of actual hours you spend ‘on the job’ is a fairly useless metric for working out how productive you are, or how hard you work.

We’ve all had colleagues who seem to churn out a cracking standard of work in a fraction of the time taken by their peers.

And equally we’ve all worked with people for whom even the most basic task can take a lifetime.

In a normal office environment, they may both be working 9-5, so in terms of working hours are equally hard working. But that’s clearly not the case.

To be fair to Joshua Rayner, founder of Rayner Personnel, he makes the point that the hardest working professions are ‘under-represented’ based on the average hours worked per week.

He used the example of teachers who may only clock in an official six hours a day at school but then spend many hours at home marking work and planning lessons. As someone married to a former teacher, I can attest to that.

But there does remain a culture of presenteeism in the UK, where all too often your value to a firm is measured in terms of the hours you spend at your desk, rather than the actual volume and standard of work that you produce.

How many loo breaks does he have a day?

This has become a more pertinent issue as a result of COVID-19, and the fact that so many people have spent the past six months working from home.

Bosses across the nation have had to get to grips with Zoom calls, Google Drive and finding a way to engage with their staff without breathing down their necks.

And what’s been interesting is just how mixed the response has been.

Some have taken a particularly paranoid approach. Accountancy giant PWC, for example, took the opportunity presented by lockdown to develop a facial recognition tool, aimed at City firms who wanted to track precisely how long traders and the like spent at their desks. 

Thankfully this seems to be the exception rather than the rule as many businesses are open to a more flexible way of working, recognising that just because they can’t watch their staff like hawks, it doesn’t mean the standard of work is slipping. 

Take TalkTalk, which has said that it plans to introduce a more flexible office model for staff.

“The idea of nine to five, five day a week office working is over. It really is,” said Tristia Harrison, chief executive at TalkTalk, to PA.

“You can't imagine anybody returning to that kind of rhythm and I think what we're also finding is that people are just much more productive.

“If they can be trusted to be at home, they can be super flexible.”

In other words, treat your staff like adults and they will respond in kind.

The idea that staff can only be productive if they have to commute into an office five days a week, with a boss monitoring precisely how they spend each minute, is for the birds.

Switching off

But the greater prevalence of home working does present a productivity challenge, albeit a rather different one to that expected from the sorts of bosses signing up for PWC’s snooping software.

One of the hardest things about working from home, in my experience, is that the line between when you’re working and when you’re on a break or finished for the day are far more blurred.

When I worked in an office, I might leave the house at about 7:15 but I wouldn’t arrive at my desk until around 8:30.

That commuting time, in both directions, acted as a fairly clear divider between my working day and my own time, to spend with my family. I also found it easier to take a proper break at lunchtime. That doesn’t exist now though.

My working day will start once the kids head off to school, but there isn’t a clear end point ‒ I might finish work for a bit around the end of the school day and then return to it later on.

Similarly, I find it much harder to take a proper lunch break.

It’s not just the time spent at my laptop, tapping away either. I am far more likely to catch myself thinking about work in the evenings now that I work from home than was ever the case when I was based in an office.

So, while I have no doubt that I have been at least as productive, if not more so, when working from home, it is all too easy to develop unhealthy habits and find yourself with less time to switch off. 

Working from home for at least part of the week is only going to become more common from this point on; the real productivity challenge will be ensuring staff are able to properly divide their day into working hours and free time, or else there is a real risk of burnout.

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