Bankers say people are working less since the pandemic – but what does HR think?

Attitudes are shifting in favour of fewer working hours, says the BIS. But people professionals say this ‘oversimplifies’ the issue

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Workers’ preferences have shifted in favour of fewer working hours following the pandemic, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has said in its latest quarterly review released last week.

“After large declines during the pandemic, the labour force participation rate has generally recovered, but there are some noticeable exceptions,” it said. 

The BIS noted that, in some countries, including the UK, the US and Canada, participation rates – defined as the labour force divided by the total working-age population – “are still below pre-Covid benchmarks”. 

It added that these rates have been “recovering more slowly where pandemic-related fiscal support was larger”, drawing a connection between support such as the furlough scheme in the UK and low workforce participation. 

The review also said “work-life balance considerations” and “workers using more sick leave” were a factor impacting the drop in working hours. 

“There has been this apparent change in the attitude towards work and the way we think about work and the labour market,” said Hyun-Song Shin, head of research at BIS, as quoted in The Telegraph

So do HR professionals agree that the UK’s workforce has slipped into less industrious habits?

A symptom of a tight labour market

Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, told People Management: “The narrative presented here doesn’t align with the broader reality I’m seeing and hearing.”

She explained that the reduction in hours worked may be the result of a “tight labour market”, where “the power naturally shifts to employees, enabling them to dictate terms”, rather than indicating a drop in work ethic. “This dynamic is not a recent development; it has always existed, and the power also shifts to the employer when labour supply is plentiful, such as when unemployment is high,” she said.

Bullivant added that these narratives can be damaging: “Blaming a perceived decrease in work commitment on employees during a talent shortage oversimplifies complex workforce dynamics. Such assertions can contribute to misleading narratives about employee dedication and productivity.”

A change for the better?

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said the pandemic had been “a catalyst for change” across many industries. 

“It seems to have served as a wake-up call for many who decided that they either needed to refocus their work-life balance, or have had a complete change in career or lifestyle,” she said, adding that the pandemic acted as an “experiment” into how flexible working may impact the workforce.

“For some employers, having their staff work remotely saves them the cost of office space and can be a win-win situation. But it doesn’t work for everyone and recently we have seen many big companies recalling their employees to the office,” Palmer continued.

Ian Moore, managing director of HR consultancy Lodge Court, agreed that there had been “significant shifts in attitudes” towards work. However, he told People Management: “It’s not entirely accurate that people are working less; rather the nature and structure of work have changed.

“With the rise of remote work, people are spending less time in the office and embracing the flexibility it offers [...] Employees are learning to optimise their time, reducing unnecessary meetings and travel while focusing on tasks that demand their attention. This allows for greater productivity and efficiency.”

Are people actually working more?

Amid a cost of living crisis, is the reality that employees are actually working more hours to make ends meet?

“Practically, it is not that easy for people to just decide that they want to work less. There are, of course, financial implications for them if they make this move,” Palmer said. “Many have families to support, responsibilities and bills to pay. While they might like to work less, therefore, for many it is not a reality.” 

Moore added that he had noticed a rise in people taking on second jobs to make more money. “We’ve had to guide our clients on how they can share their employees with another business,” he said. 

Palmer also pointed out that organisations were “struggling with increased costs and overheads”, leading them to look for ways to make savings. “One way to save may be to reduce their workforce or the hours they work, meaning some employees may, therefore, be working fewer hours but not through their own choice,” she said.

With the change in working patterns since the pandemic, Bullivant added: “We need to get more skilled at managing and measuring outcomes rather than hours clocked in and out, which is based on ways of working born in the industrial revolution.”