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Are we all sick with overwork? With new European Commission Working Time regulations promised by the end of the year, Matthew Jones finds out whether engineers are overworked.

Macho, long hours, working yourself into the ground - that's the construction industry. At least according to Cary Cooper, workplace stress expert and professor of organisational psychology at UMIST.

Despite the government's commitment to the EC Working Time Directive (News this week), Cooper reckons that many construction employees will agree to continue working longer than the regulatory 48 hour week.

'It's part of the industry - people are expected to commit their time even if they are not doing anything,' he says.

Cooper has coined the phrase 'presenteeism' to describe what he sees as the industrial disease of the 1990s. Job insecurity, he says, is forcing employees to compete to stay at work longer to impress bosses and gain promotions.

'People are staying at work longer and are frightened of being off work ill,' he claims. 'It's getting worse, because of the increase in short term contracts and downsizing.'

Cooper recently summarised a number of studies from around the world which show that long hours are damaging to health. And he found that the lack of research carried out to date on stress in the construction industry was notable. But his feeling is that if anybody did a detailed study 'the stress levels would be off the scale'.

Cooper's view is that the industry is dominated by 'male techies' who can't relate to people and are too macho to care anyway. This results in poor and often insensitive management, which in turn leads to sick and unhappy employees.

There is also a knock-on cost to the industry, he says, although this is less well documented. Overwork leads to an eventual drain on energy and a dulling of the senses. And that in turn leads to a loss of productivity, mistakes and accidents.

'Engineers make decisions which could cost a hell of a lot of money if they were wrong. Designers would be aghast if a surgeon was working on them after a 72 hour week, yet they are prepared to work those hours themselves,' says Cooper.

Cooper paints a pretty bleak picture of baggy-eyed engineers barely able to lift their 'macho' rigger boots. But is this something that engineers themselves are noticing?

'Not at all,' says leading design consultant Alan Baxter. He believes that the threshold for overwork in construction is higher than in most other industries because the work is interesting.

'I wouldn't think there is a number of working hours after which you're overworked. It's about attitude - where does work stop and start?' he says. Work, he argues, is not just about earning money but

should also provide a social existence and job satisfaction - so long as we are enjoying it there is no limit to the hours we should or shouldn't work.

Baxter dismisses the EC Working Time Directive as 'ludicrous and way too prescriptive'.

'Are we going to stop ourselves from doing the gardening for more than 48 hours a week?' he scoffs.

WSP managing director Chris Cole is of a similar view. He works a 12 hour day himself and expects his employees to work hard when required. This means an average 45 to 48 hour week for employees in WSP's London offices, though Cole admits that many work more.

'I believe in the old phrase 'give a job to a busy man'. Everybody works better under a little bit of stress,' he says.

This may be the case, but there is another well quoted adage - 'quality not quantity' - which could easily be better substituted.

Balfour Beatty recognised this last year while working on the M25 junctions 8-10 widening scheme. Rather than having staff work long overtime hours, the company calculated the number of man hours needed to meet the construction programme in advance. These were then shared out, with monthly overtime allowances of up to 30% being paid with the salary, irrespective of whether or not the extra hours were worked.

Balfour Beatty operations director Stephen Tarr explains: 'We intuitively came to realise that working long hours consistently isn't good for you and is likely to lead to accidents. If people are fresher they are likely to be more productive and more efficient.' The contract was completed on time and to budget and the practice is now standard on all Balfour Beatty contracts.

There is no doubt that the construction market has become a harder place since the boom years of the 1980s, and demands on staff are now greater. Despite the slight increase in construction output this year, there is still intense pressure to keep costs down. Making employees work harder and harder is certainly one solution.

But Balfour Beatty's experiment and research by academics such as Cooper shows that working longer hours is perhaps not the best way of getting more for less. So if you want to do you and your boss a favour, knock off early tonight.

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