NS Essay -'If Beethoven had been subject to the EU working hours limit he wouldn't have got further than the Fourth Symphony'

Britons see work as more central to their lives than other Europeans - and this is assumed to be a b

Work is getting a bad press. British workers, it seems, are stressed out, chained to their desks and made to work until they drop, just to scrape together a pension. Gordon Brown cracks the whip from one side, lauding "hard-working families" and refusing to sign up to a Brussels-drafted maximum working week. David Blunkett meanwhile wants to boot incapacity benefit claimants into the "dignity" of work. The modern labour market is a hard place.

Listening to some of the voices on the state of the poor British employee, it is easy to picture dark Satanic mills, manipulative employers and exhausted wage slaves trudging home from work in the dark. The TUC says that three out of five workers are suffering from "stress" at work. This is an amazing figure. It can only mean that the term itself has come to cover negative emotions from genuine psychological distress through to having to work late on a presentation or article now and then. If what we feel is stress, what on earth did our grandfathers in the steel mills and coal mines experience?

A battle is now raging over the UK's opt-out from the European Union's maximum 48-hour week. For unions, the alliance in favour of the opt-out between new Labour chiefs - including Gordon Brown - and business leaders is tantamount to a betrayal. In public they are disappointed; in private, they are furious. "Why on earth is a Labour government siding with the Confederation of British Industry to allow employers to work people to death?" is the response of one senior unionist.

Yet while the debate about working hours is real, there is a deeper division here. New Labour politicians believe that work is a good thing, bringing opportunity, purpose and a place in the world. But other voices on the left - including plenty in the unions - hold to the view that work is a bad thing, a necessary evil to be borne for the income it brings, and to be minimised at every possible opportunity.

This is a dispute generating more heat than light. While the British workplace is far from a nirvana, almost all the indicators of work quality are moving in the right direction: pay, hours, conditions, representation. It is certainly the case that the Brits put work closer to the centre of their lives than most of our European neighbours - but not immediately obvious why this is to be so loudly lamented. There are three areas of dispute where facts are often lost in the rush to judgement: the degree of regulation in the world of work; the story of working hours; and the relationship between work and mental health issues.

Labour market policy is always a journey between over-regulation and worker exploitation. On the whole, Labour governments have struck roughly the right balance. The economy retains an enviable ability to absorb growth without triggering wage inflation, which in turns keeps employment high. Much of the credit for this goes to the Thatcherite reforms of trade-union legislation, the bulk of which were left in place by Labour - but Brown is right to be cautious about risking this asset through a rush to regulation. None the less, rights have been dropped into the workplace one by one.

Since 1997, British workers have gained: the introduction of a minimum wage, protected holiday rights, improved representation opportunities, hugely improved maternity rights, modest but ground-breaking paternity leave, disability discrimination laws. Rights to consultation have just come into effect - and laws banning discrimination on grounds of age or sexual orientation are on the way. Everyone can think of areas where they would like more progress to have been made, but the degree of protection afforded British workers is much greater than in 1997. Labour feels the need to go on about the UK having one of the "most lightly regulated labour markets in the world", but this dubious assertion is for nervous business ears. Watch what they do, not what they say.

Labour's record on worker protection makes the government's resistance to working hours limits puzzling to many. Why double maternity leave but baulk at insisting on shorter hours?

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, describes new Labour as a "mulish defender of crazy working hours". But the rights of workers to time off for child-rearing, or for protection against discrimination, are of a different kind to centrally imposed rules about hours. It is certainly true that the government's case for retaining the 48-hour opt-out has been weak, relying on principally economic arguments. There is no evidence that longer working hours improve productivity - they simply increase output. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the so-called "productivity miracle" enjoyed by the US in recent decades is as much to do with longer hours as smart technology. Between 1970 and 2002, average working hours rose by 20 per cent in the US. In France, in the same period, hours dropped by 24 per cent. So the unions are right to unpick the economic arguments for allowing workers to put in more than 48 hours. But they are wrong to call for the removal of that right.

For a start, three-quarters of the people who work above the EU threshold do so out of choice, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). And the people working the longest hours are not the poor, huddled masses - they are the boss class. Two-thirds of those working more than 48 hours a week are professionals or managers. These long-hour workers also like their jobs more than those putting in less time.

None of this is to say that there are no workers in jobs that provide little satisfaction, who are working hard simply to make ends meet. Indeed, the principal reason workers in manual and service jobs work extra hours is for the paid overtime. Two points are in order here. First, a restriction in working hours would have an immediate downward effect on the incomes of these households - and it is not clear that this is better than the long hours; or at least that the government should be making this choice on their behalf. Second, the solution to the problem of a minority of workers putting in more hours than they wish to reach a decent pay threshold should be addressed through more aggressive increases in the minimum wage - not a blanket ban on "long" hours. While the trade union movement sees the battle over working time as a continuation of the fights for a six-day week and 12-hour day, the relationship between hours and labour market power has reversed. It is now the factory workers, secretaries and drivers who go home at a decent hour and the suits who burn the midnight oil.

The grounds for opposing the EU legislation are liberal, not economic. Unless it causes harm to another person, an activity freely chosen by an individual is no business of the state. Imagine if the government put a ban on watching TV for more than eight hours a week, on the grounds that excessive TV viewing increases the risk of obesity, heart attacks and depression (all of which are true). The cries of "nanny state" would be deafening. Yet there are no better grounds for banning people from choosing to work long hours, even if - and it's a big if - they can be shown to suffer as a result. In fact, only one in ten of the sample surveyed by the CIPD reported health problems resulting from their long hours. And it would be a supreme irony if the government were to stop people working the hours they wished just as it introduces the right to drink alcohol when they choose. Working hours respond well to demand in the labour market, as demonstrated by the dramatic expansion of part-time jobs in the past couple of decades - almost all of which are filled by people who actively want to work part-time. John Stuart Mill, in his mid-19th-century Principles of Political Economy, suggests that if it is seen to be better for working hours to drop, "the manner in which it would be most desirable that this effect should be brought about, would be by a quiet change in the general custom of the trade; short hours becoming, by spontaneous choice, the general practice". If we want shorter hours, we should work shorter hours.

However, many people are happy to spend more than 48 hours at their work. Noel Coward reckoned that work was more fun than fun. He may have been luckier than most. But for those fortunate to find work which they love, the idea of a state-imposed deadline is distinctly totalitarian. If Beethoven, a "workaholic" by today's standards, had been subject to the EU limit, he would never have got further than the Fourth Symphony. I doubt Picasso would have been impressed if a bureaucrat had turned up with a clipboard and stopwatch and ordered him to down brushes or be charged with a breach of EU rules.

It is easy to argue that these are exceptions. Of course they are. But who is to say that composing a symphony is any different from perfecting a spreadsheet? Or that writing a book is the kind of activity that should not be curtailed, while cutting hair should be? In a recent survey of job satisfaction, hairdressers emerged top, followed by clergy, chefs, beauticians and plumbers. Many of us would look at this list and shudder - but our judgement is beside the point. If someone chooses to spend more than 48 hours cleaning a sewer (and in this case for handsome overtime) the state has no right to stop them.

But it is not just longer hours that make Britain a bit different from our European neighbours - it is shorter hours, too. With the exception of Holland, the UK has the most part-time workers in Europe. This is a hugely welcome trend, offering individuals the chance to combine paid work with other activities, especially child-rearing. The rise of part-time working counterbalances the long hours worked by some full-time workers. So the average number of hours worked in a year by a British worker is 1,673, compared to 1,814 in Australia, 1,938 in Greece and 1,800 in Spain - not nations normally seen as having Stakhanovite working cultures.

The UK has moved away from a single-breadwinner model of work to a labour market which offers a wider range of options. No-one should pretend that the results of this have been always rosy: none the less, it is a huge achievement of the UK that, in part as a result of greater flexibility, more women have been able to secure a wage: two-thirds of working-age British women are in paid employment, compared to nearly half in France, Belgium and Ireland and well below half in Italy and Spain.

It may be that long hours are a result of mostly free choice, and it may be that work looms larger in Britain at least in part because paid work is not a male monopoly. Yet there is still an argument that hours should be curbed because of the impact on mental health. It is certainly true that mental health problems seem to be increasing in the UK. And it is the case that mental illness is now the single biggest cause of a person claiming incapacity benefit; it is mental wounds that incapacitate today. One in seven adults of working age has a mental illness - leaving the nation, according to Professor Richard Layard of the LSE, with a £22bn-a-year tab in lost production, health services and benefit payments.

It is less clear, however, that work is to blame. Will Hutton may blame Britain's "Gradgrind" workplaces for contributing to mental health problems, but the evidence is mixed. First, the link between long hours and mental health problems at work is not clear. Most studies of stress at work find that it is inversely related to status. In other words, it is those at the bottom of the pile who are under most pressure, almost certainly because they lack the autonomy of their bosses.

One of the dangers of this debate is the confusion between the corrosive effect of lack of choice and power at work and being late for the morning flight to New York. The former is a real problem: the latter is a status symbol. Long working hours are concentrated towards the upper end of the labour market, where stress is lower. Second, it is absence of work which most effectively damages mental health. The long-term unemployed see a hugely increased risk of the whole range of psychological problems. Those people on incapacity benefit who are unable to work because of mental health problems were often unemployed for long periods beforehand. For most, it was the experience of being without work that did the damage, not the workplace. And employment contributes hugely to well-being. Economic studies show that being in paid employment increases an individual's level of happiness by the same amount as an increase of £100,000 in income. Work is usually the cure, not the disease.

It is time for a broader, more progressive debate about work. The issue at hand is not whether people should be allowed to choose to work 47 hours or 49 hours. The challenge is to create work offering autonomy and opportunity to a majority. Almost a decade ago, Gordon Brown stated that Labour's ambition was to create "full and fulfilling employment". This is the stuff of progressive aspirations, not bans on working hours. Rather than seeking to limit work, we should all be seeking to make it better.