Brits may be the hardest workers in Europe, but the all-work-and-no-play culture doesn't make us happy or productive. And, as the results of the Building/DTI work–life balance survey suggest, a more relaxed workforce may mean a healthier balance sheet.
Compared with the rest of Europe, UK employees are a nation of workaholics. We toil an average of four more hours a week than the rest of Europe, which means we have less time to spend enjoying life outside the workplace. But this dedication isn't reflected in our productivity – Sweden, Holland, Germany and France all work less, yet produce more. It is this disparity that led the government to set up its work–life balance campaign. This encourages firms to provide their staff with a better balance between their work and home lives – and thereby increase productivity – through measures such as flexible working and benefits such as childcare and health facilities.

But what do you think? Do you work too hard? Do you think that work–life balance is an important issue? The Building/DTI work–life balance survey suggests that you do. What's more, it seems that construction employers are taking an interest as well.

The survey, which is based on 180 responses, showed that some flexible working practices are already in place in the industry. Almost two-thirds of respondents said that they worked for a company that had flexible working arrangements. Part-time working and flexitime were the most popular practices, being in place in about 40% of respondents' workplaces. The third most popular was staggered hours, which were found in a quarter.

Graham Rice, UK managing director of multidisciplinary consultant Heery International, says his firm has surveyed staff to find out who would prefer to work less traditional hours, the motive being to meet client demand, but also keep a happy workforce. And Sandi Rhys Jones, a consultant who has worked on construction initiatives such as Building Work for Women, emphasises that providing a better service to clients does not mean pushing staff harder and harder. "There is a way to cover this without everyone working hard all the time," she says. "It is called being flexible. There are a heck of a lot of people out there who want to work flexibly."

But although part-time and flexitime seem to have caught on, other forms of flexible working, such as annualised hours and term-time working, are lagging behind: they were found in under 10% of firms. This is, however, something that employers will be forced to consider when legislation comes into force in April 2003 giving parents of children under six or disabled children under 18 the right to apply for flexible working and have their requests seriously considered.

The survey found that a large proportion of respondents work well over their contracted hours each week: more than a quarter work up to five extra hours, almost 40% five to 10 hours, 25% fell into the 10-15 extra hours bracket and nearly 10% worked more than 15 additional hours. The introduction of the 1998 European Working Time Directive, which limits employees to a 48-hour working week, appears to have had little impact on construction's long-hours culture – possibly because Britain has an opt-out that allows staff to go over this limit if they agree it with their employers.

The survey responses do suggest that there is a willingness in the industry to change in the working culture. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said they would implement flexible working policies if they would help their staff achieve a better work-life balance, and almost 90% said they would be more flexible if it improved the company's business performance. And, importantly, the issue of work–life balance was not felt to be sex- or profession-specific – almost 80% of respondents said it was an issue for all employees. "People often associate work–life balance with large-scale businesses and with mothers and other carers – but this is an issue for everyone," says a DTI spokesperson.

Given that more than 85% of respondents feel that a poor work-life balance has a negative effect on staff performance, perhaps the industry will actually start to realise that flexibility can mean greater productivity – and more profit?

For more information on work–life balance, visit