What is the point of work (and leisure)?
One of the demands being made of Greece by the 'troika' of creditors consisting of the European Commission, European Central Bank and as part of its next bailout is that the government in Athens should introduce a six-day working week.
This raises the vexed question of how many hours should workers expect to put in to be considered productive?
It will come as no surprise that Greek workers who have seen their wages and conditions significantly reduced in recent years as part of austerity caused by their debt crisis are not going to welcome working even longer hours.
Interestingly, the statistics for working hours tell an interesting story and undermine the belief that seems to be prevalent that many of Greece's problems are a result of being too wedded to an indolent lifestyle; presumably consuming Oozo and being in the sun!
On average for all employment workers in Greece put in the highest number of hours when compared to the rest of Europe; 42.2 hours; much higher than the EU average of 37.4 hours per week. Indeed, when the statistics for full-time employment are considered, the figure goes up to 43.7 hours per week; the EU average being 41.6 hours per week.
The figure for the UK for all employment is 36.3 hours per week which is almost an hour less than the EU average. However, the figure for UK for full-time employment is 42.7 hours per week which means that we work over an hour more than the EU average.
In considering hours worked, it is useful to compare ourselves against what goes on in Germany. German workers who are frequently cited as being one of the reasons why the country is Europe's economic 'powerhouse', work 35.6 and 42.0 hours per week respectively for all and full-time employment.
When one looks at productivity figures it certainly seems that longer hours is not the answer to Greece's problems.
Using statistics that have been provided by Eurostat, in which the average per hour for an EU worker is set at 100 (the average for the Eurozone being 113.5), some very interesting findings emerge.
As always, the way that productivity is measured is crucial. Eurostat state that they calculate real output based on GDP and divided by the total number hours worked which, as they explain, provides a better 'picture' of what is really occurring.
So, according to Eurostat, the most productive workers are found in Luxembourg (189.2) followed by the Netherlands (136.5), Belgium (134.7) and France (132.7). Intriguingly, according to these statistics, German workers (123.7) are not the most productive and come behind Ireland's workers (125.6).
Even more curious is that Spanish workers (107.9) are more productive than those in the UK (107.2).
Greece's workers (76.3) are more productive then their Portuguese counterparts (65.4).
And even though Polish workers are regarded as hardworking here in the UK, the Eurostat statistic for Polish worker productivity per hours is 53.9. Bottom of the list are Romanian workers whose productivity per hour is a lowly 41.7.
The average full-time hours worked in the five countries which, according to Eurostat, are the most productive are; Luxembourg (40.5), Netherlands (40.9) and Belgium (41.7), France (41.1) and Ireland (39.7).
So, what does this tell us apart from the fact that we all need to study what workers do in the Benelux countries?
Like all statistics there is so much that is hidden as to make analysis and interpretation fraught with difficulty.
Is it because what workers make is significantly different in the countries with more productive workers? Cursory analysis tells you that Luxembourg's main exports are machinery and equipment, steel products, chemicals, rubber products, glass.
Obviously if you produce high value goods with well trained and educated workers using the most up-to-date plant then it is much more likely that you will be productive.
For Greece that does not have the sort of industry found in the Benelux countries there is no quick fix.
It strikes me that if workers are simply being asked to work longer hours to produce the same output for the same wages the net effect is that there can be no improvement in its economic situation.
For British industry the message is similar. We need investment in industry that produces real goods using highly valued workers who are encouraged to be actively involved in improving processes to add value.
Straightforward quality management that I have written about on numerous occasions previously.
The call for longer working hours should also be considered from the perspective of what do we really wish to achieve?
Motivational theory tends to incorporate the belief that every individual wants to do interesting things that assists in achieving their potential.
If you hate your work then doing it for longer, despite the additional pay, doesn't add one jot to the individual's sense of well-being and will probably undermine their willingness to be involved in any efforts to improve.
But I suspect that very few workers enjoy their work so much that they would want to do nothing else. In very simple terms most do it to earn enough to be able to do things in their spare time that they really enjoy.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything it is that we enjoy sport both in terms of participation and, of course, being spectators.
Indeed, the great success of the Olympics and Paralympics was the willingness of the huge numbers of people who gave their time for free to be part of the magnificent spectacle.
Expecting people to work longer will undermine the objective of getting more people to be involved in voluntary activities.
Writing in The Guardian at the weekend, father and son and philosopher Robert and Edward Skidelsky argue that case for keeping weekends work-free (though I appreciate that for many this may be a cherished dream).
The Skidelskys make the point that much as we tend to get nostalgic about the past, for workers living in the latter part of the nineteenth century life was pretty grim and consisted of working ten hours a day six days a week; frequently under conditions that we would now regard as appalling.
There was little time for leisure and certainly no pension. You basically worked until you were either too infirm or died.
Stimulated by trade unions, the last century saw a gradual reduction in working hours in Britain and by 1980 the average for workers was 40 per week. Indeed, some suggested that workers would eventually work so few hours each week that they would have difficulty filling their spare time.
However, as the Skidelskys assert, the beginning of the 1980s was significant in that neo-liberal governments were in control and were wedded to the principle of deregulation and undermining of what was seen to be 'worker power'.
As they argue, inequality increased and 'The world reverted to the earlier, more brutal form of capitalism characterised by John Stuart Mill as "trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels".'
Given the well-known views of the Skidelskys it is not surprising that they take issue with those who advocate the need to make British workers do more. They cite an organisation known as Britannia Unchained, a group of five young Tory radicals, who describe workers in this country as 'among the worst idlers in the world' who work the lowest hours, retire too early and whose productivity is poor.
Advocates of work tend to suggest that in the current economic climate we have no choice and that it is the only way to compete. But similar to what I have pointed out already, it is not hours worked that increases productivity; this is achieved by altogether different means.
Moreover, the Skildelskys contend, society should consider what we do in our leisure time as adding value; especially if it improves our culture.
For those who work tremendously long hours the ability to attend the theatre, read a book, join a choir or simply relax and allow recovery time may seem fanciful.
Very interestingly, the 1970s are usually used as an argument against allowing workers to regain power. Significantly, though, the Skidelskys cite the fact that during the so called 'three day week' which Edward Heath introduced to deal with shortage or power caused by the miners' strike, 'hardly any production was lost'.
Doing the same amount of work in less time is undoubtedly possible if workers are allowed to think about what they do and how they can do it more effectively.
Crucially, the importance of leisure- time is accepted as allowing time to be creative and adventurous which, if encouraged, can then become the catalyst for being similarly engaged at work.
There is, in many UK organisations, a culture of what is known as 'presenteesim'; the perceived importance of being able to cope with long hours and willingness to forgo time off and holidays.
'Presenteesim' is something I came across during my own research and recall a senior manager tell me that in his company there was a battle of wits as to who would be first to go home.
As a consequence all the senior managers simply stayed in their office until someone's resolve was broken even though they might be doing nothing useful!
When talking to an American executive recently he was genuinely perplexed by the willingness of British people to use all their annual leave; as if it was a sign of weakness.
There is certainly more to life than work and, having experienced death and illness in my extended family I can attest to the fact that nobody wants written in their epitaph that they would like to have spent more time at work.
When facing death because of cancer, Steve Jobs certainly said that having missed so much of his own family growing up whilst he was developing Apple was his biggest regret.
So, the belief that forcing Greek workers to be willing to dedicate more of their time to their organisations might be mistaken and, indeed, may even be counterproductive.
It is useful to conclude this piece with what a quotation from the Skidelskys:
"In 1929 the economist John Maynard Keynes looked forward to a world without work, in which "we shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful". Yet all we can offer our children is insecurity and hard graft. Keynes found his social ideal in the writings of poets and philosophers. How ironic that already wealthy western societies find theirs in the sweatshops of China and the workhouses of Victorian England."