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LONG WORKING HOURS TAKE THEIR TOLL ON PEOPLE’S HEALTH AND JOB PERFORMANCE: Evidence from First World War munition workers

  • Published Date: December 2015

LONG WORKING HOURS TAKE THEIR TOLL ON PEOPLE’S HEALTH AND JOB PERFORMANCE: Evidence from First World War munition workers

Cutting back on excessive working hours leads to healthier and more productive workers, according to research by Professor John Pencavel, published in the December 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. His study revisits data from UK munition workers in the First World War – and confirms the productivity benefits of a key government decision to reduce working hours and give all staff at least one day off a week.

At a time of rising indications of work fatigue and work stress in many countries, these findings are a reminder of the importance of job quality for people’s health and performance at work. The author comments:

‘Instead of viewing restrictions on working hours as harmful restraints on management, statutory regulations on hours may serve as an enlightened form of enhancing workplace efficiency and welfare.’

Accidents and mistakes made by nurses, surgeons, lorry drivers, air traffic controllers and other workers are sometimes attributed to their fatigue from working long hours. These incidents are said to be just the conspicuous and sometimes tragic illustration of a more general principle: workers are less productive when their working day or working week is long.

A concern about the consequences of long hours of work goes back at least to the First World War, when the military’s demand for munitions resulted in long hours worked in the munition plants. As Minister of War, David Lloyd George established the Health of Munition Workers Committee to investigate the effects of long hours of work and to advise him on ways to protect the health of the workers. A large number of these workers were young women who came to be known as canaries because of their yellow skin, the result of their exposure to the chemicals they packed into the shells.

The Committee employed investigators to collect data from the munition plants and to conduct surveys of the health of the workers. From the data collected, the Committee made a number of recommendations including mandatory shorter working hours, the avoidance of continuous night shifts and, above all, giving workers at least one full day off from work each week.

This study revisits the data collected by the Committee’s investigators and determines whether the Committee’s recommendations are supported by this new examination. It finds the Committee’s recommendations fully justified. For example, with respect to the value of one day off work each week, Professor Pencavel calculates that the week’s output was slightly higher when these munition workers worked 48 hours over six days than 70 hours over seven days.

Work fatigue and work stress are not things of the past, he notes. Contemporary surveys suggest that more workers are working very long hours than 40 years ago: in the United States, men are more likely to work more than 48 hours per week in recent years than in 1979.

Reports of stress from work have also increased. The OECD has recently constructed an index of job quality across countries. A component of this index is the fraction of workers who usually work more than 50 hours per week. This index is correlated with the health of workers in 2010: better job quality is associated with better health, a finding with which Lloyd George’s Committee would concur.

ENDS


Notes for editors: ‘The Productivity of Working Hours’ by John Pencavel is published in the December 2015 issue of the Economic Journal.

John Pencavel is a professor of economics at Stanford University.

For further information: contact John Pencavel on +1-650-723-3981 (email: pencavel@stanford.edu); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh).