Long hours and stress in the UK's IT profession: has the European Union's Working Time Directive offered relief?

Martin, Ian (2005). Long hours and stress in the UK's IT profession: has the European Union's Working Time Directive offered relief? In: Gender, Work & Organization 4th International Conference, 22-24 Jun 2005, Keele, UK.


Only a small amount of research thus far has investigated the relationship between the working conditions of those employed in technical professions, such as Information Technology (IT), and the implications for their well being (Sonnetag et al., 1994). In particular the IT profession in the UK appears to be at risk from a culture characterised by long working hours (Kodz, 2003). In addition to the established links between long-term computer use and upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders (Punnett & Bergqvist, 1997), previous research has also positively linked working for excessive hours as potential stressor to the mental health of employees (Sparkes et al., 1997; Spurgeon, Harrington & Cooper, 1997). A prevalence of mobile computer technologies has also meant the erosion of traditional boundaries between work and home (Venkatraman, Tanriverdi & Stoke, 1999). Furthermore IT professionals have faced a proliferation of complicated methodologies, a growing guilt reaction to a failure to keep pace with ever-changing technological advancements, and the pressure to develop and deliver software in shorter time scales (Perlow, 1998; Stokes, 1996). These very personal issues associated with the quality of working life also have serious organisational implications in terms of increased costs related to absenteeism, recruitment and training; impaired decision making; job dissatisfaction and low morale (Coolican, 2001).

The UK's Working Time Regulations (WTR), implemented in 1998, provide a current, normative representation of reasonable working time. This research paper compares the working patterns of a cluster of IT professionals within a large financial services organisation against this model in order to ascertain their position relative to this tolerable standard. The relationship between the subtleties in the way time is ordered and the reported perceptions of the affect of the WTR and other Human Resource initiatives to reduce the culture of long working hours are studied.

Whilst it is acknowledged that individual characteristics are important in determining an affinity and ability to work long hours and cope with stress, they are by no means the overriding aspects. Previous researchers such as Moore (1998) have cited adverse organisational factors as more significant in the etiology of work exhaustion than individual factors. This research examines some of those organisational factors and the perceived value of formal initiatives in reducing incidences of long working hours and concomitant pressures. The perceptions of stress and the efficacy of these formalised schemes are examined by observing and questioning those directly affected with regards to their working time, job stressors and work-life balance.

The findings indicate that although the organisation in question has made some high-profile attempts to promote a healthy balance between work and home, the efficacy of these efforts is questionable. The working limits set by the WTR are regularly exceeded and long hours are still entwined, and indeed often subtly promoted, within the organisation. Managers and the Human Resources (HR) department appear to send out confusing and contradictory messages. IT professionals, and their partners, are often publicly rewarded for working long hours while others are penalised for doing the same. The performance management system values those working on high-profile projects, with work on these projects often a key factor in gaining promotion. Yet due to the nature of the profession, the organisational sub-culture, and poorly considered workplace design, this work invariably requires the commitment of sustained long hours amid difficult circumstances. As HR try to drive through the principles of the WTR formally, or informally through initiatives such as Work Smarter Not Harder and Go Home On Time days, the unanticipated consequences of their actions and inactions present IT professionals with a stress-laden dichotomy.

Viewing alternatives

Download history

Item Actions