work life balance

Employees in the UK are working fewer hours each week.

According to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) — the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority, a department that reports directly to the UK Parliament — only 11 percent of UK employees now work over 50 hours week. In 1995 this figure stood at 16 percent.

The statistics show that more employees are now working between 36 to 40 hours a week. Most full-time employees are now working on average 37.4 hours a week.

This decrease was in motion before the economic crisis of 2008, however the trend reversed after the recession amid concerns about job security. Now, in the past 18 months, this trend has reversed again with average hours worked steadily falling.

The statistics are interesting to ponder as a result of the intersection of multiple global technological, social and economic trends.

Better Job Market = Fewer Hours?

The relatively stable economic conditions in the UK at the moment could be the main reason why employees are working fewer hours.

The figures suggest that employees are no longer worried that taking time off could be detrimental to their career prospects. Since 2012 the job market has significantly opened up.

And in the three months leading up to October 2015 the unemployment level fell to 5.4 percent, the lowest rate for nearly a decade. Fewer working hours could also indicate that wages are rising, meaning that employees no longer need to top up their hours.

Uncertain Global Economic Forecasts

All the news is not good, however. The decrease in hours could be because employers are choosing to cut the hours employees work after some uncertain forecasts for the economy.

The global economy has had a shaky few months, in part due to the volatility of the Chinese stock market and tumbling oil prices. Such factors have resulted in strategists from Citi concluding that the world economy is in a "death spiral."

UK Labor Initiatives

Other factors such as the growth of the UK service industry, which tends to offer its employees more irregular hours, and legislation regulating the working hours of UK employees, such as the Working Time Directive, could have contributed to the fall in hours.

The Working Time Directive states that employees cannot work more than 48 hours on week on average and for people under age 18 this figure is reduced to 40 hours a week.

Promoting Work-Life Balance

There could be some more subtle shifts behind the UK's shrinking working week. Increasingly employers are being encouraged to promote the benefits of a work-life balance to their employees.

In Sweden a number of companies have cut their employees working day to just six hours a day. Companies in Sweden have reported that the cut has made employees more productive and has led to a boost in revenues.

Only a few companies in the UK have followed Sweden's lead in introducing six-hour working days. However, there is evidence to suggest that employers are becoming more receptive to the work-life balance mantra and are likely to be more lenient when employees ask for time off.

That doesn't appear to be the case in the US, where an annual Gallup poll of hours worked by adults each week shows a steady increase in the past 10 years. The average climbed from nearly 42 hours in 2005 to 44 hours when the most recent poll was released last August.

Remote and Mobile Workers

Another reason for the downward drift of working hours in the UK could be because more employees are choosing to work from home.

Telecommuting has become increasingly popular with UK employers and employees because technology has made remote working possible. For employees who have time consuming commitments at home and are in favor of skipping the early morning commute, this option can be ideal.

Furthermore, there are financial incentives for employers to want to promote work from home, which means employers can spend less on office space and business storage.

However, despite the advantages of telecommuting, only a tiny proportion of UK employees work from home. And telecommuting is still treated with suspicion by some who are convinced that it can dampen the career prospects of a professional.

Nonetheless the use of tablets and smartphones means it is now possible for employees to complete work after hours, from wherever they happen to be — which is resulting in less time being spent at their desks in the office.

Are you working more or fewer hours than you did a year ago? Share your experience and your geography in the comment section below.