You probably don’t need reminding that British employees are overworked, underpaid and struggling to keep up with living costs – so much so that the number of 'working poor' (those with a job yet unable to make ends meet) has spiked to 18% since the 1990s.
This may explain why we’re so intrigued by other countries’ enlightened working practices – we were riveted by the news that a New Zealand firm trialled a four-day week (for the same pay) last year and saw improvements not only in employee stress levels and work-life balance but in productivity too. Employee protections on the other side of the Channel are also a major source of envy. In France, workers have the legal right to disconnect from emails outside working hours and just last week, a Paris appeal court ruled that a man who died on a work trip while having sex with a stranger suffered a workplace accident, making his employer liable.
Workers in France are also subject to a 35-hour work week – a policy that the Labour party was looking at to give UK employees more leisure time (without reduced pay) until a report, commissioned by the party, this week concluded that it wasn’t the answer. Capping working hours nationwide, the research said, "is not realistic or even desirable, because any cap needs to be adapted to the needs of different sectors."
Still, while many people struggle to survive on shorter hours than they’d like – those on zero-hour contracts, for instance – the research acknowledged that most of us would welcome a pruning back of the working week. Full-time workers in the UK (74% of the workforce) work longer (42.5 hours) than any EU country other than Greece (44.2) and Austria (also 42.5), against an EU average of 41.2 hours, the research said.
France’s 35-hour work week policy was introduced in 1998 to increase employment and is divisive, to say the least. Many argue it’s behind France’s high productivity, a boon for employee work-life balance and happiness, and has even led the French to adopt less materialistic values. It certainly fits the stereotype that leisurely two-hour lunches and monthlong holidays are also de rigueur in the country.
But others blame it for the country’s economic problems and claim it’s too rigid – it often makes it difficult for blue-collar workers to take on overtime even if they want it – and that it’s ineffective because there are so many exemptions and loopholes. The policy isn’t as simple or as generous as it sounds – the 35-hour limit is a threshold above which overtime pay or rest days are triggered, rather than an outright ban on long hours, and certain kinds of workers are exempt.
Nevertheless, more opportunities to rack up overtime pay, more holiday days and a governmental signal that, actually, work-life balance should be a priority for everyone, would certainly be welcomed by huge swathes of the UK population.
What is it like working in a country where a 35-hour work week is enshrined in law for many workers? Is it worth disregarding entirely as an option for the UK? We asked women working in France how it really affects their lives.
Laetitia Tourraine, 28, a sales coordinator for a lighting company in Paris, works 35 hours maximum each week and will receive seven weeks’ paid holiday this year. She never works weekends.
"In terms of work-life balance, working 35 hours a week is ideal. I work nine to five, so I get to spend a good amount of quality time with my son and take my time for his bedtime routine. The thing I love most about being home fairly early is being able to make great home-cooked meals, and always being free at weekends allows me to go on European city getaways with my son and my partner.
I’ve never experienced it myself, but I know some employers hide behind this law to deny their employees the overtime work they want. A friend of mine wanted to get his girlfriend a nice and pricey birthday gift and wanted to take on overtime work to earn extra cash. His employer explicitly told him: 'You’re on a 35-hour contract, we won’t pay you for any more work you do.' The lack of flexibility of some employers may be a disadvantage for people needing and wanting extra work hours. I understand employers want to get the most out of their employees to keep their businesses fruitful, but whatever happened to workplace wellbeing?
I experienced the downsides of working longer hours myself when living in the UK as a young mother. I had a 45-hour week job, starting at 8am and finishing at 6pm, with an hour break per day. I had to drop off my son at his school’s breakfast club at 7.30am and pick him up at 6.30pm from his after-school club. I could only cope for four months. I had to quit.
Not only did I barely see my son, but I also realised he was really unhappy spending such long hours away from home with little to no quality time with me on weekdays. My monthly childcare bill was through the roof and worst of all, I was permanently stressed out and irritable, always rushing everything – rushing waking up and getting ready in the morning, rushing to pick up my son from the after-school club, rushing the homework while cooking dinner, rushing bathtime to get him to bed at a reasonable time. I was exhausted every day."
Not every employee gets to reap the benefits of a 35-hour work week. As an executive-level digital consultant, the law doesn’t apply to 28-year-old Lucie, who lives in Paris. She typically works between 40-42 hours a week and longer (between 45-50+ hours) when she needs to hit a tight deadline.
While she doesn’t qualify for reduced hours, as an executive (cadre in French) Lucie receives the typical five weeks of paid holiday annually as well as RTT (réduction du temps de travail) days: additional days off (three weeks of paid leave!) for those not subject to the 35-hour work week.
"In my current position, I can manage a good work-life balance as I usually turn off my work phone at night after dinner and on weekends – and I definitely leave my work phone and laptop behind when going on vacation. I'm lucky to have managers who are respectful of our right to disconnect and who do that themselves.
When I worked summer jobs that were subject to the 35-hour week law, those were usually entry-level jobs – salesperson, data entry operator – that were physically and mentally exhausting, requiring me to stand up or execute mechanical tasks all day. I was glad the 35-hour week existed. The law is particularly helpful for parents who can pick up the children after school, have dinner with them and help them with their homework, without the support of a nanny or a grandparent. That's what I saw with my own parents.
However, maybe it’s a tad too rigid. It was sometimes hard for me to ask to leave a little earlier or to be away for an hour or two if I had medical appointments, even though I said I’d make up for it. I remember once having worked overtime and being asked to be more respectful of working hours because they didn't want to pay me for additional hours. But to be honest, I'm glad that people who are subject to the law can enjoy it."
Meg Gagnard, 29, a digital marketing manager in Paris, also typically does not enjoy an elusive 35-hour work week, instead working 45 hours on average. But she receives 36 paid holiday days a year (25 by law and 11 RTT days), excluding bank holidays, and she rarely works weekends.
"As a cadre in my current company, I’m paid for working a certain number of days in the year, but my hours aren’t set or limited. This is also why I have extra RTT days off. The actual hours worked by employees like me are mostly dictated by the company culture. In my case, among friends and professional acquaintances my 45-hour work week is considered super chill.
I can imagine that if you have the luxury of working for a company where you don't have insanely long and unpredictable hours, one of the biggest benefits is definitely work-life balance: being able to go to events, see friends, have free time for crafts, go to the gym, cook a nice meal at home, not miss special occasions. Also feeling more refreshed and above all more productive and alert thanks to that balance.
I must say that I don't know anyone who only works 35-hour weeks in France. On average I'd say people in my industry work easily 45 to 50 hours a week – if not way more. However, I personally feel more productive when I have work-life balance."