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Improving work-life balance is essential to economic recovery

The UK’s long-hours culture is scarring the economy as well as fuelling a public health crisis.


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  • The UK has longer full-time working week than any EU country and the second-highest incidence of unpaid overtime in the OECD 
  • A culture that rewards overwork sees full-time workers paid an average 35 per cent more per hour than part time workers 
  • The UK economy has more than a million vacancies, but 3.8 million people are off sick or retired early. 

The UK’s long-hours culture is scarring the economy as well as fuelling a public health crisis. This is the argument made in ‘Nein to Five’, a new report from the Fabian Society and German think-tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). The report asks what lessons can be learned from Germany to improve our working conditions. 

Poor work-life balance creates barriers to work, at the same time as more than a million job vacancies go unfilled.  

And the pressure on workers to raise output is often a false economy and can actually reduce productivity. Working more than 39 hours per week can be harmful to mental health and working 55+ hours risks premature death from heart disease.  

Moreover, people who can’t work long hours often struggle to progress, leading many to deprioritise work. Some are pushed out the labour market altogether. Disabled people and carers are particularly affected.  

In Germany, employees enjoy some of the best working hours in the world. The country has consistently enforced rules and cultural norms on work-life balance and a social security system that allows time away from work where needed.  

They also enjoy world-leading productivity that is passed onto workers in higher pay and better conditions, because of collective bargaining successes.  

Drawing on the German example, the report calls for the government to actively reduce working time and improve work-life balance.  

The report argues that the government should: 

  1. Enhance minimum statutory rights, by lowering the maximum work week incrementally over the next decade, introducing a right to paid overtime, normalising flexible work, and improving enforcement. 
  2. Strengthen the social safety net, with better sick pay and parental leave, a new right to disability leave, and better access to childcare and social care. 
  3. Establish institutions to actively drive down working time, through leveraging the benefits of automation and making proactive efforts to shape its effects; setting up a taskforce to reduce working time; and transforming the Low Pay Commission into a Fair Pay and Working Time Commission, to advise on reducing working hours each year. 
  4. Empower workers, through firm-level collective bargaining like the German Works Councils, and sectoral collective bargaining. 


Report author and Fabian Society Senior Researcher Sasjkia Otto said:  

“We are at a critical juncture for improving work-life balance. Doing so would help attract workers into occupations with high vacancies, and also retain essential older workers. This could also free people to care for their families and therefore help address the country’s increasing care needs. 

“Public demand for better work-life balance is not being met. We should normalise healthy working patterns, which would benefit people on low and high incomes, because it would make space for more people to enter work and progress. 

“Policymakers shouldn’t just sit back and to see if new technologies will deliver. We need strategic government action to create a virtuous cycle between productivity improvements and working time reduction, complemented by a decent safety net, to bring UK working conditions into the 21st century.” 


– Ends – 




  1. Contact: Luke Raikes, Research Director, Fabian Society or 07794 027975.  
  2. The report is published on our website at
  3. Working Nein to Five is published jointly by the Fabian Society and The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. 
  4. The Fabian Society is Britain’s oldest political think tank. Founded in 1884, the society is at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left. The society is alone among think tanks in being a democratically-constituted membership organisation, with around 7,000 members. It is constitutionally affiliated to the Labour party.  

Photo: José Martín Ramírez Carrasco / Unsplash

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