A Journey of Undiscovery

Or the frustrations of social research

In Europe the pilots are arguing in favour of shorter hours on the basis of health and safety. In contrast, I came accross a report of surgeons in the UK represented by the Royal College of Surgeons in England were using health and safety of patients to argue against working time reductions. This is what they want


“Earlier this year, surgical trainee organisations worked out an ideal working system that would offer safe  and high quality patient care, ample training time and retain a good work/life balance for surgeons in training. They established that a core working week with flexibility to be on-call up to a combined total of 65 hours a week would be best and the Royal College of Surgeons calls for a sectoral opt-out of the European legislation to achieve this.”

This reminded me of a seminar I attended a couple of years ago at which Catherine Hakim attempted to argue that some work just wasn’t suited to part-time work by citing the example of surgeons. Some gentle laughing broke out in the room, and the chair explained to Hakim that the reason for this was that in Ireland many surgeons do indeed work part time (part time with private patients, part time with public patients) and they managed to do this without walking out of surgery to clock out.

This lead me to wonder, how do working hours of surgeons in the UK, differ from working hours in other countries? Does a surgeon have to work long hours in order to train and provide a service? Is the problem, long hours or (as I suspect) not enough surgeons or resources to assist in scheduling and managing complex time-tables?

So I went on a two-day search for statistics (I had the flu so my mind was open to distraction). There are two types of statistics on working time. There are statistics on working hours derived from general surveys in which there usually is one or two self-report questions on working time and then there are time-use surveys which are surveys designed specifically to look at questions of time.

The first kind of data can be found in the European Survey on Working Conditions, the European Household Community Panel (ECHP) and the European Labour Force Survey. For Ireland, this is compiled by the CSO as part of the Quarterly Household National Survey (QHNS). People are asked what their usual number of weekly hours are, what their actual hours were for the week of the survey and to select from a list some reasons why their actual hours might differ from their usual hours. I was very excited and delighted when the 2002 Census contained a question on usual hours work, but that was sadly dropped from the subsequent census. These various surveys report on weekly hours. The OECD also compiles the various international reports and additionally produces a report of annual working hours.

In terms of time use surveys there is the Harmonised European Time Use Studies Project (HETUS) that combines survey results from EU countries. The various international “time-uses” surveys have been harmonised and are now part of the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS). There is also a lovely, longitudinal US Time-Use survey that has been collecting such data for over five decades. These sorts of surveys involve asking participants to fill in quite detailed time diaries. They are much more expensive to conduct, and sadly Ireland is not part of MTUS. The ESRI did conduct one pilot survey in 2004, but again sadly, this was not repeated.

So some data on working time exists. But what of working time of surgeons (or of pilots for that matter)?

This is where my journey ended. All but the census use ISCO-88 2 digit codes to define occupation. This means when the data is collected it is in very broad groups

  1. Legislators, senior officials, and managers
  2. Professionals
  3. Technicians and associate professionals
  4. Clerks
  5. Service workers and shop and market sales workers
  6. Skilled Agricultural and fishery workers
  7. Craft and Related Trades Workers
  8. Plant and machine operators and assemblers
  9. Elementary occupations

The reason for this that (unlike say a census) the numbers sampled are relatively small, so that that if you looked at sub-categories, you wouldn’t get enough data to make the survey representative. You might just uncover the working hours of the three pilots and four surgeons that happened to be included in the random sample. The census has of course much better occupational data – but in Ireland, we only have time-data on one year. I’m not sure if other countries have questions on working hours in their censuses.  (I’ll have to wait until the next time I’m sick to chase that one up).

And the moral of the story? Social research is frustrating. I always think that there must be data out there that answers the particular question I am asking and I often discover, after days of looking, that there just isn’t.




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