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Blog: Are British workers really the most idle in the world?

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4th Oct 2012
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British workers are among the most idle in the world, according to a book written by five Tory MPs.

In the book ‘Britannia Unchained: Lessons for Growth and Prosperity’ the authors wrote: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”    They also state that people who come into the UK from abroad are prepared to work harder than the indigenous population. Are the authors on to something here or are they simply out of touch with the everyday British worker? A report by the Office for National Statistics ranked the UK second bottom in the Group of Seven industrialised nations in terms of economic output per worker. The report also showed that Britain lagged 15 percentage points behind the rest of the G7 in terms of GDP per hour worked and 27 percentage points behind America.  The ONS said the difference between productivity in the UK and US was a worrying 39 percentage points – the biggest it has been since records began in 1990. But are these figures a true reflection of the effort put in to work in Britain or more an indication of a lack of engagement in what we do for a living? Are the Americans simply more enthused by what their employer is trying to achieve and at one with the values of their organisation? I would argue that organisations in Britain are failing to motivate their workers through a lack of engaging initiatives at a time when spirits are low. Many organisations still fail to identify the power of recognition in the workplace and the dramatic impact a simple thank you can have on one’s willingness to ‘go the extra mile’.
Should we expect more from our staff? At a time when pay freezes are the norm and bonuses have been cut can we expect staff to outperform on previous years? Absolutely. But please don’t expect more from your staff through the threat of the dreaded P45. If you want more from your team you need to foster an environment where two-way feedback is the norm, where employees are recognised for their achievements and where they are educated in your products, services and in what direction the business is heading. Employees want to feel that they can make a difference to your organisation. We spend the majority of our adult lives at work and often it’s far more than just a pay slip that retains long term, productive employees.
What can we learn from Google? The search engine giant has achieved unquestionable success, even getting itself listed in the dictionary! (how many of you ‘googled’ this article?) So what makes it so great? Everything was up at Google last year — revenue, profits, share price, paid search clicks, hiring — and so, too, was employee love; the search giant climbed three slots in the ‘Top 100 companies to for work’ ranking to reclaim the top spot.   Happy coincidence? I think not.  Google is a prime example of an organisation that recognises the influence a happy, motivated and engaged workforce can have on their bottom line. It knows that great profits come from innovation driven by its staff, and that’s an attitude that needs to be embraced by all British companies.  So before we critique the productivity of the ‘average’ British worker should we not take the time to look at what management are doing to foster a healthy, happy working environment? Do line managers in your organsation have the tools they need to recognise staff for exhibiting desired behaviours or are they left to their own devices? A more productive workforce can only be achieved with engagement initiatives that are driven from the very top. John Sylvester is divisional managing director at marketing services agency, P&MM.

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By Chris Woodman
04th Oct 2012 12:44

A couple of anecdotes, for what they may be worth.

I have worked in the UK and in the United States and lead HR functions with operations in up to 20 countries.  My own observations are that such generalisations are wide of the mark.  In the US office that I worked at, people would get in early but leave early to have dinner with their families.  On a Friday afternoon there was a quick getaway to weekend homes or just to have a long weekend.   Holidays were less (this accounts for much of the productivity, plus the investment in technology) but executives would often go to conferences with their spouses to resorts.  I saw no differences in productivity between the UK and US office environments.

In the 1980's I worked for Ford in Halewood and we were competing internally against Saarlouis in Germany.   We had similar plants, but we in the UK had more workers, working more overtime and produced less cars of a lower quality.  We had an initiative to show employees other plant and their working practices.  What I saw was a level of organisation and efficiency that we culturally were not matching.  Managers planned less, were more into crisis management and were relatively disorganised and were addicted to overtime.   German management and engineers were organised, worked in tidy offices, and worked from 9 to 5 (and left the office exactly on time).   The workforce at the time tended towards strike action, raising grievances and were also addicted to overtime and other payments.  We were fighting to bring about change.   At the same time, ex Ford managers were setting up operations in Washington Tyne and Wear for Nissan and showing that a British workforce could be efficient.

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