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Our working hours are longer than ever but our productivity is dismally low. Why? I have a theory

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Our working hours are longer than ever but our productivity is dismally low. Why? I have a theory

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‘Once upon a time, you’d have thought me a trouper for writing this on a Bank Holiday’ Getty Images

I find a new report on UK productivity by think tank the Smith Institute grimly fascinating. More than two-thirds of employees questioned say they are working longer hours than two years ago, but only 10 per cent believe they are more productive. In fact, a quarter of staff members say they’re working harder than ever but their productivity has declined over the last two years.

I’m not surprised to hear that we’re burning the midnight oil with more frequency – because, gosh, I am so busy, pull up a chair and let me moan –  but it feels so cruel to face up to the fact that it’s all for less than nothing. 

The way Britain functions has rapidly shifted. Not so long ago, the fact I slaved over a hot laptop on a Bank Holiday Monday to bring you this life-enhancing epistle would have marked me out as somewhat of a trouper.

Working over Easter, not so long ago, was the territory of those offering something vital, important or deeply unusual. It was for martyrs, maestros and the much-maligned. Same for Sunday mornings at 7am, or 11pm on a Wednesday night. Or any time between 7 and 9 on a Friday, when it was completely de rigeur to rattle a shop door or send a work email and receive a reply saying – in a roundabout sense –  “Naff off, mate, we’re not here.”


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But – and the Smith Institute backs me up on this –  over the last two years I’ve noticed a rapid depletion in the British concept of “downtime”. Not just among media twonks like me or London-based companies, but across all sectors. 

We want our restaurants open seven days per week, our hotels staffed joyously on Christmas Day, our trains to run safely all night and our customer service hotline taking calls perky at 6am. 

We want groceries delivered at 11pm on a Sunday night with a £1 delivery fee and our TaskRabbit electrician here within the literal click of a button.

Nowadays, if I send half a dozen work emails on a Sunday morning “to get ahead of myself for Monday” – because I’m so busy, so terribly busy – at least five will ping back within the hour, typed by other people “trying to get ahead” too. At that point, it becomes a fact that none of us are “getting ahead for Monday” but are in fact merely working with each other on a Sunday. How did this become the status quo, and so quickly?

Five years ago, this didn’t happen. There was an unsaid guilt-free lull. We appear to be lost in a crossfire hurricane of new technology, job fear, wage stagnation and – most importantly than all this –  strident consumer neediness. We’re phasing out those times when we go off-grid: asleep, tipsy or covered in dogs, crumbs or our babies. And that doesn’t seem to be doing us any good at all.


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Dive further into the Smith Institute’s report and you start to see why. The report suggests, for example, that managers often seek productivity gains via jobs cuts or simply by instructing workers to do the same tasks at a faster pace.

One civil servant said: “It would be better to concentrate on improving quality, not quantity … [To get work] right first time rather than continually having to repeat or rectify botched or inadequate work which meets a so-called target.”

For me, in my souped-up, Super-50 fibre broadband enhanced daily life where every retail need is available for next-day delivery at an app touch and my iPhone is more like an extra appendage, this rings a bell.

I want my NHS GP service faster with Skype consultation and Deliveroo to fetch dinner from a restaurant four miles away that’s piping hot and seasoned perfectly when it arrives.

And yet, in this Brave New World, so many of us have developed the most cantankerous of inner Victor Meldrews. Because why is the chilli oil seasoning on this pizza delivery too hot? And how have they lost my blood results? And why has my ASOS delivery been left in a wheelie bin? And for God’s sake how many calls to the bank does it take to send out new authorisation PIN?

In other words, we are busy, stressed, falsely productive people being catered to by other busy, stressed, seemingly mega-productive folk who keep making mistakes and having to start over again. Then the cycle of promised productivity – coupled with the reality of human beings – begins anew.


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I remember a time, as a teen in the eighties, when absolutely nothing happened in Britain from 5pm on Friday through to 10am on Monday after we’d all had two strong pots of tea. And even then, if we’re being honest, nothing really got going until Tuesday.

We were under-stimulated, never pandered towards and at the same time absolutely bored silly.

Sometimes, I think back to those times and it all feels rather like fun.

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