9 to 5 (not a way to make a living)

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We can work remotely and send emails worldwide at 3am, so why are our jobs stuck in the past? Reader Eve Hankins investigates...

Every day, 21.18 million people in the UK wake up, go to work, sit at their desks at 9am then get up again eight hours later. Yet the majority of us can access all the information we need on our laptop, iPad or smartphone, accessed at the touch of a WiFi-enabled button. Ten years ago, going into work was the only option. Technology and attitudes have changed – so why haven’t our routines?

There can’t be many of us who haven’t daydreamed about weaving our working hours around our passions, body clock and priorities rather than the other way around. Who hasn’t yearned to work a four-day week so they can pack in the odd long weekend, devote some time to learning a language or writing a book, or just wake up after the weekend feeling truly relaxed instead of still half-frazzled. Or at least dreamt of the seat on the train you’d get if your job started at 11am. Even the flexibility to have a lie-in after a few too many glasses of merlot or take a two-hour gym session in the afternoon would be a start. In fact, the flexibility to set your own pace of working life is the primary reason that 57% of female entrepreneurs gave for starting their own businesses, while 45% said it was the ability to work from home. And a recent study by a parents’ website showed that 67% of mothers would prefer a more flexible working week.

Yet the notion of working nine to five, Monday to Friday is so entrenched in our national psyche that we rarely question it. We started our five-day week as children when we headed off to school on Monday morning with our My Little Pony lunchboxes and are still following the pack – admittedly with slightly pricier bags – today. But has it become outdated? After all, in the Fifties, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already looking ahead and foreseeing a future that would give “the working man what he’s never had – four days’ work then three days’ fun.”

Our 21st century, digital society is certainly primed to make Churchill’s (and our) dream happen but although flexitime is a government buzzword, and having more control over working hours is proven to be beneficial physically and psychologically for employees (and financially for employers), we still haven’t managed to come up with a better universal option than the standard working week.

Six-day week?

Looking back through history, we should be grateful our working week is as short as it is – although it might not feel like it when you’re fighting for air space on your morning commute. In the Middle Ages, you would have been toiling late into Saturday evening too, doing manual labour outdoors. Back then, most British people worked the hours commanded by the Bible – that is, six days a week, with one day of rest to attend church. The hours, which varied season to season, were dictated by daylight and climate, which meant as few as eight in winter, but up to 16 in summer. There is a solid science behind their working approach, although they wouldn’t have known it at the time. Research has shown that we are far more efficient in natural daylight. A 2001 study by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York found that workers in offices with windows were more productive during the daytime than their colleagues sitting under artificial lighting.

Despite advancements in every other area of our working lives, the five-day week is the same as it was over 80 years ago

Even 100 years ago, 75% of the population still worked outdoors (it’s now just 10%) but the introduction of electric lighting and factory machinery meant many jobs were moved inside. From 1800 onwards, men, women and children were expected to work long hours, for six days a week, so that expensive equipment didn’t sit idle. Robert Owen, a founder of socialism, campaigned in 1817 to have the day divided into thirds – one for work, one for leisure and one for sleep. He failed in his mission, but fairer hours were set with the Factories Act of 1847, which meant women and children could not be made to work more than 60 hours a week. It was the first move towards the standardised working week that we all know so well.

The sort of workers’ rights we now take for granted (in the UK, the legal working limit is now 48 hours per week) only became a consideration at the beginning of the 20th century, when an eight-hour, five-and-a-half day working week became standard. This was shortened to five days in the Thirties. It did have a slight deviation in 1974 when the then-government introduced the three-day working week to conserve electricity during the miners’ strikes. It lasted for just three months (from 1 January to 7 March), it led to 885,000 people immediately registering for unemployment benefit and a ban on overtime – such a radical move would clearly be disastrous in the current economic climate but it’s strange that despite advancements in every other area of our working lives, the five-day week is the same as it was over 80 years ago.

So here we are, all rushing to catch the same trains, booking the same dentist and doctor appointments and frantically scrambling to get away in order to pick up our children or have a life outside of the office. That’s despite the fact that we’re no longer ploughing fields or working in factories and the eight-hour working day makes no sense in our new industries. A lot of our jobs today are creative or analytical and almost certainly office or shop-based. Whereas physical labour fits in with a solid eight-hour day, research shows we lose the ability to concentrate effectively within a few hours and our brains cannot continue to function at the same productivity level staring at computer for more than two hours. We would be more productive if we tapped into these periods of high activity and then recharged during periods of low productivity with a nice long walk, a wander round the shops or a visit to a museum (all proven to recharge our batteries) – rather than sitting at our desks for eight hours a day, simply because we’re subscribing to the outdated notion of nine to five.

It’s not just that our new working habits jar with nine to five. Study after study shows that the key to creating the ideal working circumstances, especially for women, is actually about personal control, which too few of us currently have. In the UK, less than 10% of workers have flexible hours written into their contracts, according to new research by the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals. That’s not because we don’t want or need it – the same survey found that 36% of workers would like to be offered more flexibility by employers and over a third would like to be able to work from home. But in most cases we are afraid to ask for it – earlier this month, a poll by My Family Care found that 54% of Britain’s working mothers felt that asking to work flexibly would damage their career, despite parents of children under the age of 17 now having a statutory right to ask for it.

Working smart

Women are actually naturally suited to flexible working hours, not just because of our family commitments. Mental health charity Mind believes that woman are around twice as likely to suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) than men, which means being able to live outside of the office during daylight hours is far more important for us.

So loud is the buzz about flexible hours that two-thirds of politicians believe that employees having the option to work this way could provide a major boost to the economy. The government is consulting on a change in employment rules to allow different working options for all, not just families – including a four-day week. Business secretary Vince Cable believes this would lead “to employees taking less time off and being more committed to companies, as well as allowing employers to tap into a wider talent base in society.” Indeed, every party in last year’s election had a policy on implementing more flexible working. It does seem to be a win-win situation – a study published in The Journal Of Occupational Psychology found that women had the lowest rates of absenteeism when employed under a flexible schedule. Workers who have control over their own hours are also healthier because they are less stressed and get more rest, according to a review of studies involving more than 16,000 people, conducted by the Wolfson Research Institute at Durham University. Another 2004 report suggested that job stress is lower among those who spend more time working remotely.

That has been the experience of Claire Freeland, director of ski operator Powder White, who has recently introduced flexible hours in the belief that it would positively impact on staff retention. She explains, “It works for us, as we are still a small company and you need to make considerable investment in hiring a new employee – we would rather hold onto our experienced, valued ones.” With the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development estimating that the average cost of replacing an employee runs to £6,125 (£9,000 for a manager), her decision makes sense.

Workers who control their own hours are healthier because they are less stressed and get more rest

Workers’ rights

Being allowed to dictate your own schedule is obviously appealing for employees too. Rona Moore, 39, a legal cashier at a London law firm, decided two years ago to retrain as a florist. Initially, she believed she would have to quit her well-paid job to do so, but she asked to drop down to four days a week and her firm immediately agreed. Moore explains, “It was only as a last resort that I approached my boss, who was accommodating. They took the view that helping their staff made a more productive workforce.”

Research by Price Waterhouse Cooper shows that flexible work is actually the benefit most valued by employees, above even pay and bonuses (47% compared with 19%). Moore certainly believes that to be the case. “It has made me appreciate them a lot more, and I find I’m far more productive on the four days I’m in the office, as I am happier and more fulfilled,” she says.

There is another very good reason for working from home – the proximity to your bed. Recent research shows that the most beneficial thing at lunchtime would be a sandwich and a snooze, as a 90-minute nap in the middle of the day prepares the brain to remember things, just like rebooting a computer. “Sleep is not just for the body. It’s very much for the brain,” says Matthew Walker, assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In his study, Walker divided 39 adults into two groups. Participants took part in one memory exercise at noon, then another memory exercise at 6pm, after half had napped for 100 minutes. Those who slept performed 10% better on the tests.

So we’d be happier, less stressed and more fulfilled if we worked more flexibly. That’s a big tick from the female workforce. And a 2010 report by UK think tank the New Economics Foundation, which proposed a 21-hour working week, argued shorter working hours would benefit the planet too: “It could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably.” A 2008 report suggested that workspace for each employee in the UK generated the equivalent of two tonnes of carbon emissions each year. More employees working from home would improve commuter costs and travel conditions – an experiment being carried out next summer, when Londoners have been told they should change their working patterns during the Olympics to ease the transport burden, will prove enlightening.

Some visitors to the Olympics will inevitably be baffled by our working hours regardless. Britain is 20th on the list of the world’s hardest-working countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. South Korea topped the list – the average employee works 2,357 hours per year, or six-and-a-half hours every single day of their life. Japanese workers also put in extremely long hours – one government survey found that nearly 90% didn’t even know what the term “work/life balance” meant, and there is even a specific word for death by overwork, “karoshi”. The Dutch, who came bottom of the OECD’s list, are the polar opposite – they work an average 1,391 hours per year and everyone has the right to determine their own hours. Tellingly, a Gallup World Poll survey declared it the “happiest country in the world” in 2010.

So what does the office of the next decade look like? It turns out, quite a lot like your own front room. A survey by Regus found that 60% of businesses believe that flexible work, whether that’s office hours or location, is more cost efficient (a desk for a single employee in London costs nearly £12,000 per year), and there is no better argument for a world that’s still recession-hit. Now we can have our office at our fingertips, no matter where we are, there is no reason that work can’t come virtually to us. As it makes us not only happier but healthier too, there is no reason not to ditch the nine to five. The future is looking flexible.

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Working 9 To 5 was written by Stylist reader Eve Hankins, a merchandise planner for Burberry (second top image, left). The eye-catching illustrations for the feature were created by reader Karolin Schnoor, a graphic designer (second top image, right).