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A future that works for working people

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
It's about time

The Factory Act of 1874 was the first to set a clear limit on the working day.26  At ten hours it fell short of the union movement’s demand of an eight-hour working day that would leave eight hours for rest and eight hours for leisure. It did, however, establish a precedent that limiting working time, or more importantly maximising time outside work, was a core element of ensuring a fair deal for workers.

Over the TUC’s history we have seen further improvements in workers’ ability to control their time. The average working week has almost halved since 1868, falling from 62 hours back then to around 32 hours today. 27  But we remain a long way from the 15-hour week prophesised by Keynes in 1930.28  And large numbers are still trapped in the extreme end of overwork:

  • 3.3 million employees work over 48 hours a week
  • Almost half-a-million work more than 60 hours
  • 1.4 million people still work on all seven days of the week

Technology also threatens to encroach into our non-working time too. One-in-seven workers in our polling said that new technology has increased working hours, as your boss can reach you even when you’re not in the workplace. While remote working has the potential to increase work-life balance, an ‘always on’ culture, and the rise of ‘on-demand’ services requiring ‘on-demand’ workers, threaten to usher in an era of increasingly intense work. Many employers have also used technology as an excuse to revive old fashioned poor employment practices, such as piece-work that restricts workers’ control over their own time. This includes unpredictable hours, zero-hour contracts and shifts cancelled at short notice.

We need to make sure workers have more control over their time. That means banning the zero-hour contracts that leave workers at the beck and call of their employers, ensuring fair scheduling practices that allow people better control over their lives, and resisting the demands of gig companies for a return to piece-work.

And if new technology makes us richer, we can be ambitious about how we use that wealth to give us more time to spend with family and friends. We think it’s time to put time back on the agenda – and it’s clear that the public agree. When asked for their ideal working week, most people pick four days. Shorter working hours – without a reduction in living standards – should be on our agenda for the twenty-first century.

Time over time

Improvements in productivity over the past 150 years haven’t led to fewer jobs. But they have helped to ensure that people have been able to work fewer hours. Average weekly hours worked have fallen from 62 hours a week in 1868 – the year the TUC was founded – to 32 today.

  • 26If only for women and children in the textiles industry
  • 27Bank of England series ‘A millennium of macroeconomic data’ – composite series of average weekly hours worked.
  • 28JM Keynes (1930) Economic possibilities for our grandchildren – see
Chart 8: Average weekly hours worked have fallen significantly
Chart 8: Average weekly hours worked have fallen significantly

Source: Bank of England series ‘A millennium of macroeconomic data’ – composite series of average weekly hours worked.

Some of the falls in hours across the workforce over the last forty years are due to changes in who is working. The entry of large numbers of women working part time into the labour force has lowered average hours. However, it’s also the case that when we look at normal hours for full-time workers they’ve fallen over the last twenty years – by 1.5 hours a week.29

Workers have also won some more control over their hours, with the introduction of the working time directive in the UK in 1998. The introduction of a right to request flexible working (first introduced in 2003 and subsequently expanded) has also helped some workers to gain a better fit between their working hours and their working lives.

But the UK’s long hours culture clearly remains a significant problem:

  •  Over 1.4 million people have a normal working pattern that involves them working on all seven days a week
  • UK workers put in over two billion of hours of unpaid overtime in 2017, totalling £32 billion-worth of free labour30
  • 3.3 million people still regularly work over 48 hours a week31

Concern about over-employment is clearly on the rise, with well over three million people now saying they would like to work fewer hours, even if this resulted in less pay, and ten million wanting to work fewer hours overall. This is clearly more of a real choice for the better paid, and working hours are already shorter for higher earners – by around five hours a week for male full-time workers according to research by the Resolution Foundation.32

Chart 9: The number of people over-employed has now overtaken those under-employed
Chart 9: The number of people over-employed has now overtaken those under-employed

Source: data from ONS (2018) ‘Labour market economic commentary August 2018’ at… es/labourmarketeconomiccommentary/august2018

Workers in the UK still work some of the longest hours in Europe – with no positive impact on our productivity or output. Full-time workers in the UK work two hours a week more than the European average, and over four hours a week more than their counterparts in Denmark.


Chart 10: Full time workers in the UK work some of the longest hours in Europe
Chart 10: Full time workers in the UK work some of the longest hours in Europe

Source: Eurostat data on average number of usual weekly hours of work in main job, 2017, full time workers

And while the UK has a relatively high level of part-time working, bringing the average down when we look at both full- and part-time work, the average UK worker is still working:

  • Two hours longer a week than their German counterpart
  • Four more hours than a Danish worker
  • Seven more hours than the typical worker in the Netherlands


Chart 11: Even taking into account the UK’s high level of part time work, UK workers work longer hours than some of our most pro
Chart 11: Even taking into account the UK’s high level of part time work, UK workers work longer hours than some of our most productive counterparts

Source: Eurostat data on average number of usual weekly hours of work in main job, 2017, total – full and part time workers

In our polling, long hours and stress were just behind pay in their list of worker’s concerns – both now and in the future:

  • 40 per cent say high pressure on people and stress at work are one of their three biggest concerns at work (second only to pay) and 28 per cent say working long hours/work overload (ranked third).
  • Looking over the next five to ten years, 35 per cent say high pressure on people and stress at work are one of their biggest concerns (again second to pay), and 25 per cent say working long hours/work overload biggest is their biggest fear (this time just behind job losses due to a business slowdown).

These findings echo a large-scale survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). The survey found that the average (median) employee works five hours per week more than they would like, and that nearly two-thirds of employees (63 per cent) would like to reduce their hours. One-in-four people (27 per cent) work ten hours or more per week beyond what they would like.33

Long hours working reduces the time that people have to spend with family and friends. But poor employer practices can have the same effect, leading to a culture where people have insufficient work to live on, but are constantly at the beck and call of their employer.

There are still nearly 800,000 people on zero-hour contracts, with no guarantee of when or how many hours they’ll work each week. We found that over half of workers on zero-hour contracts have had a shift cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice, and three-quarters have been offered work within the next day.34 Despite advances in legislation intended to give workers more rights to flexible work, TUC research with young parents in 2017 found that over half of them had an employer who had never spoken to them about how they could manage work and childcare, and one-in-four had also experienced short-notice shift changes.35

The ‘on-demand’ economy, where faster communications have raised expectations about when goods and services can be delivered, is also leading to a call for ‘on-demand’ workers, with no fixed boundary between their working and non-working time. This is a return to the old traditions of piece-work, where workers were paid by task rather than for their time – and employers seeking to avoid their obligations to pay workers a minimum wage or accept responsibility when these workers fall sick.

And the increased ability provided by communications software for employers to reach workers when they are not in the workplace does also seem to be leading to increased stress and pressure on workers. In our polling, one-in-seven say that the impact of new technology at work has been to increase working hours as they can be reached more easily away from work. Research by CIPD in 2017 found that almost a third of workers believed that having remote access to the workplace means they can’t switch off in their personal time.36

Technical fixes?

Many of the demands placed on workers that disrupt their working lives have little to do with technology. Breaking work into small tasks, offered out to workers at small notice, requires only an employer with scant regard for their workers’ terms and conditions, rather than any technological innovation. This is something that the trade unions who fought for guaranteed pay for dockers in the early part of the twentieth century knew well.

The most urgent action today to give workers back control of their time is for government to stand up to poor employment practices by banning zero-hour contracts, requiring employers to give decent notice of shifts, and to pay their workers when shifts are cancelled at short notice. Government should also resist calls to create a new category of ‘worker’ with fewer rights.

But the debate about the impact of technology on the future of work should enable us to be more ambitious about delivering a better balance between work and home. It’s clear that over the long term, improvements in technology that deliver greater productivity have helped enable a reduction in working hours. The UK at present is clearly failing to realise those benefits. As the Chancellor Philip Hammond put it in 2016, the UK’s poor productivity performance since the financial crisis means that ‘it takes a German worker four days to produce what we make in five which means, in turn, that too many British workers work longer hours for lower pay than their counterparts’.37

This is not about British workers needing to work harder, faster or longer. It’s about the need to improve productivity through better work organisation, technology and training. As set out in the first section, the government believes that robotics and autonomous systems could boost UK output by up to 15 per cent. If this is the case, a choice needs to be made about whether to bank the additional potential benefits in the form of greater output, or to think about how to use those gains to deliver the reductions in hours that so many workers say they want.

Trade unions delivering change

When we polled working people on their views on the future of work, it’s clear that working time was high on their agenda. Over a third said that shorter working hours would be what would most improve their working lives. This is second only to higher pay.

People are, however, sceptical about whether the future of work will deliver on their hopes. While over 70 per cent say that gaining more control over the hours they work would be positive for them, only 39 per cent believe that this is likely to happen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 65 per cent believe that working less for the same pay would be a positive development, but here only 40 per cent believe this is possible. Over half think this probably won’t happen.

Yet we know that trade unions both in the UK and internationally are already helping to realise people’s ambitions to have more control over their time.

Delivering better working time is a key part of our history. The eight-hour day was proposed at the International Workers Congress in Germany in 1866. The campaign featured heavily in the ‘new unionism’ of the late 1880s and made significant progress, as reported at the TUC’s 1889 Congress. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention in 1919 – the first convention agreed.

The TUC was influential in establishing the post-1945 40-hour week. In 1944 trade union leaders called for a negotiated reduction as a part of the transition to a peace-time economy – with negotiations underpinned by threat of legal action by the Ministry of Labour. More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s a campaign by the engineering unions lowered the basic working week to 37.5 hours, with some employers going down to 35. From 1998 onwards unions have also used the working time regulations to help battle excessive working hours. As a result, average full-time hours have continued to move slowly downwards.

Today, unions continue to win significant gains. In France, trade unions have been at the forefront of negotiating a new ‘right to disconnect’, winning early agreements in the telecommunications and oil industry. From 2017, these principles have been included in national law, with a new obligation on companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate the use of ICT with a view to ensuring respect for workers’ rest, holiday periods and personal lives.

German unions have also successfully negotiated similar agreements, for example at BMW, where in 2014, an agreement was reached that enables time spent outside the employers’ premises to count as working time. This opens up the possibility of overtime payments for time spent replying to emails after the end of the working day.38

In 2016, the German Transport Union (EVG) and Deutsche Bahn reached an innovative agreement that gave workers a choice of three options: a wage rise, a reduction in weekly working time of one hour, or six more days of annual leave. And this year, the German Metalworkers union IG Metall won the right for their workers to voluntarily reduce their working week to four days – at the same time as winning a 4.3 per cent pay rise.39

Learning from trade union gains, the Commission on the Future of Work convened by the German government put working time at the centre of its policy recommendations. This year, it introduced legislation that allows workers in companies with more than 45 workers the right to request a reduction in their working hours. Unlike in the UK, workers retain a right to return to their previous employment. The legislation also provided new protections for on-demand workers to stop them having their hours reduced or increased by more than 25 per cent.

As we set out above, ensuring that workers now have control over their time is a priority. That means new legislation to ban zero-hour contracts and tackle involuntary short-hour working. Too many employers use short-hours contracts as a form of control, enabling them to ‘zero down’ workers’ hours as a disciplinary tool.

The tax and benefit system also encourages employers to keep their workers on shorter hours, avoiding the obligation to pay into a workplace pension. Workers should be guaranteed a contract that reflects their normal working week. Short notice shift allocation that leaves workers at the mercy of a poorly organised employer also needs tackling, with fair scheduling rules that give workers adequate notice of shifts and compensation when they’re cancelled.

The first step to limiting excessive working time is enforcing the existing rules. Working time law is weakly enforced in the UK, with responsibility being split between a number of agencies. Some rights, including holiday pay, daily rest break, and a prohibition on seven-day working, are only enforceable by the worker taking a case to employment tribunal. The Health and Safety Executive and local authorities have responsibility for the 48-hour limit on weekly working time and the night-work limit, but neither sees this duty as a priority, leaving workers with nowhere to go.

The TUC has called for working time rights to be protected by a dual enforcement model, so that the agencies gain responsibility for enforcing all working time rights, but it’s also open to workers and their trade unions to take an employment tribunal case if they prefer to do so.

But the debate about the potential benefits of new technology should allow us to be more ambitious in our demands for a better distribution of our time between work and home, and to fight for shorter working hours alongside higher pay. When we asked working people what they viewed as the ‘ideal’ working week, there was a clear consensus around four days.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has the same preferences about their working pattern. For some, the best option might be shorter hours spread over more days. And for existing parttime workers, a four-day week could be an unacceptable increase in current working hours. Others might prefer to take any reduction in working time in larger doses – perhaps at the end of working life.

But if the twentieth century saw the normalisation of the weekend while living standards rose, moving towards a typical four-day week seems like a useful way to think about what we could achieve in the twenty-first century.

Chart 12: Workers prefer a four-day week
Chart 12: Workers prefer a four-day week

Source: GQR poll for the TUC.
Workers were asked: Imagine a future where using machines and computer programs at work made Britain much more productive and wealthy, and we could fulfil all our needs with less work. If it was up to you to decide how long the maximum working week should be for everyone, what would you choose?

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