Professional staff work substantial additional hours

Danish professional staff work many more hours than the standard 37-hour week. A study published in summer 2001 indicates that, for example, many engineers and information technology experts work 50 hours or more a week. In most cases, such overtime does not attract additional pay, and the phenomenon is widely seen as a new 'fashionable' trend. Working overtime has, it is claimed, become a new 'lifestyle', seen as a sign of responsibility, importance and prestige. The problem - for the employees as well as trade unions - is that voluntary extra working hours may undermine the pay and other employment conditions fixed by collective agreements.

Danish professionals are working increasingly long hours, and for certain occupational groups the average weekly working time is 45-50 hours. Among engineers, only one out of 10 works the standard collectively agreed 37-hour week, while one out of four works more than 44 hours. In consultancy and contracting firms, only 2% of professionals work the standard 37 hours, compared with 7% in 2000. These figures are taken from a study undertaken in summer 2001 by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which contacted the trade unions representing highly educated groups of employees; the figures are not broken down by gender.

The trend towards highly educated people working longer hours is also documented in the latest labour force survey published by Statistics Denmark. This survey shows that the weekly working time of employees at the highest levels has increased by one hour from 1997 to 2001. This corresponds to an extra week per year.

Individual contracts or collective agreements

During recent years, the unions organising highly educated groups, affiliated to the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC) have realised that working additional hours has become a trend – or maybe even 'trendy'. A heavy workload is often seen as a signal of personal responsibility and importance. Very often lawyers, engineers, economists and information technology (IT) experts are employed on individual employment contracts and not covered solely by a collective agreement. Today, 34% of the members of the IT professionals' union, Prosa, work under individual contracts, compared with 27% just two years ago.

The new study finds that job advertisements and job interviews focus increasingly on the interest and involvement of the applicants in the job. Qualified applicants are often required to be ready for long working days, and to work with very involved and enthusiastic colleagues. No mention is made of additional pay for this involvement and enthusiasm and, although the pay is very good in many cases, it is claimed that both pay levels and family life will inevitably be undermined if the result is 10-15 extra weekly working hours. On top of this, there is a 'rub-off' effect from ambitious colleagues who are working many additional hours to promote their professional career.

According to the study, the most 'ambitious' employees are found in law firms. Lawyers are, on average, working 46 hours per week, while young lawyers in training are working 48 hours. There has never been a tradition in this occupation of additional remuneration for extra hours.

In addition to engineers and lawyers, this trend is confirmed by analyses and pay statistics for other highly educated groups working in advertising and the financial sector, as well as for architects, IT specialists and other occupational groups in the private sector. In many cases, the employees work under individual contracts without any ceiling on working time. The management expects that employees will be willing to perform a certain amount of extra working hours for the firm and it is difficult to say no when the job is associated with 'a high degree of personal responsibility'. The advertising sector is a case in point when it comes to irregular working hours and long working days.

The reward is flexibility

The Jyllands-Posten study of the psychological working environment among university graduates and similar groups in the private sector shows a picture of long working days and a high level of stress - but also a high degree of job satisfaction. The reward for 'personal responsibility' and the long working days is a high degree of flexibility in the working day. For many highly educated employees, time off for tasks such as taking children to the dentist or going to the bank to take care of financial transactions is not considered as 'absence from work'. As long as the work is done, the organisation of working time does not matter. This gives staff a sense of freedom and makes the job more challenging. According to the study, many union members state that their work and career have become a 'lifestyle'.

Commentary

The data and information on which the Jyllands-Posten study is based have been collected from studies of their members conducted by the trade unions and may be subject to minor errors. However, the trend is quite clear: highly educated people are working long hours, primarily to further their career prospects. The lifestyle aspect is probably most common among younger employees within the so-called 'new economy'. This trend was also confirmed by an earlier scientific study conducted in 1998, which draws the same conclusion (Arbejdstid og overenskomst, [Working time and collective agreement], Steen Scheuer, Copenhagen: New Social Science Monographs). Another conclusion drawn in the earlier study is that it is mainly men who are working many extra hours, but that the trend is increasing among women with higher education.

It is generally accepted that the standard 37-hour working week fixed by collective agreements has a knock-on effect on the entire labour market and that any additional hours are thus considered to be overtime, even if no fixed weekly number of working hours is actually mentioned in the individual employment contract. In principle, the standard agreed 37-hour working week applies to all employees. However, the new study indicates that in practice it is not always possible for highly educated persons to perform their jobs within the framework of the 37-hour week. The best solution is to average out the number of weekly working hours over a certain period of time. However, the fact is that no such averaging takes place in many sectors. Compensation may be given in other ways – eg bonuses, higher wages or gifts – or through a step up the career ladder, which is the reason behind much of the additional working time. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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