Concerns raised over UK long-hours culture

11 June 2004
Concerns raised over UK long-hours culture

Long hours and the hospitality industry are so synonymous these days that many workers don't even stop to question their enormous workloads - but a new study has brought the issue back under the spotlight.

The report, for insurance company PremierLine, is notable due to its poll size of more than 1,400 small UK businesses. It found that an alarming number of UK hospitality bosses are working more than 70 hours a week, including 46% of publicans, 43% of hoteliers and 15% of restaurateurs.

The survey also found that almost 30% of hoteliers and publicans take fewer than 10 days' annual leave, with 13% of restaurateurs taking fewer than five holiday days a year.

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) spokesman Stephen Alambritis says the findings are worrying. "If you are self-employed, you can work yourself into the ground, because it's your baby," he says. "But we would urge those entrepreneurs not to expect their workers to work the same hours as them, and we'd urge them to look at their own hours as well."

The FSB, which represents about 7,000 hoteliers, caf‚ owners and restaurateurs, has called on the Government to create a high-level task force to undertake a study into the industry's long-hours culture. However, Alambritis believes that "the vast majority" of those working more than 48 hours a week do so willingly. "They want to work long hours, and I also think they need to," he added.

Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), finds the study's findings unsurprising: "The issue of people who run their own business and work long hours goes back to Adam and Eve."

But he acknowledges that in recent years owners of hospitality businesses have noticed an increase in "non-core" activities, such as paperwork, resulting from increased bureaucracy and regulations. Other reasons for the long-hours culture include the large number of workers and owners who live on site (the BHA puts the number at between 20,000 and 30,000); the fact that so many businesses are open all hours; and the ongoing labour and skills shortages.

The danger is that the hospitality industry is becoming increasingly reliant on an overstretched workforce. Organisations like the BHA and the FSB fear that if the European Commission were to succeed in its efforts to end the UK's unique opt-out of the 48-hour working week (Caterer, 3 June, page 6) the impact on the industry would be catastrophic due to the resultant labour shortages, training and recruitment costs.

Both the BHA and the FSB are in favour of retaining the opt-out, and Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, agrees that losing it would cause "serious damage" to the industry.

But others such as Anne Walker, managing director of Springboard UK, believe that the long-hours culture, if left unchecked, could have a major impact on the industry in the future.

"Long hours are viewed by students and their parents as the least appealing aspect of the industry, and this is an issue that must be addressed if we are to recruit and retain the calibre of staff we need," says Walker. "Young people are happy to work evenings and weekends, but not huge, long hours."

For his part, Alambritis is concerned that a culture of "presenteeism" could develop, where staff are at work but aren't being productive.

However, while both Couchman and Alambritis acknowledge there is a long-hours culture in the industry, both among employers and employees, neither of them believe it is a problem.

Couchman claims the number of hours worked by hospitality staff, both in the UK and across Europe, has actually fallen in recent years, and he points to the large number of opportunities for part-time workers.

Paradoxically, Alambritis believes that the upcoming changes to the UK's licensing laws, which will enable licensed premises to stay open longer, will result in employees working fewer hours due to greater demarcation between day and night shifts.

"I think the situation will improve in time," says Alambritis. "There's a solid debate now about work-life balance. [The FSB] doesn't think that the number of hours worked by staff in the hospitality industry will get any longer in the future."

Demand grows but prices fall Hospitality firms are benefiting from an upturn in demand for service sector businesses, but rising costs and falling prices are hitting profit growth, according to a new survey.

The latest quarterly survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and accountants Grant Thornton, released this week, showed that confidence levels within the hospitality sector rose for the three months to May. Profits slightly exceeded expectations for the quarter after two consecutive declines, and hospitality businesses saw a growth in demand.

However, the report showed that prices fell for the third successive quarter, with hotel, bar and restaurant owners unable to pass on rising costs to the consumer, and price discounting remaining a prominent feature.

"It's generally positive, but prices remain a concern," said Tom Bagguley, a senior economist at the CBI, which expects prices to continue falling over the next three months.

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