We may be working longer hours than ever, but Paul Picknett says the new generation of would-be employees want to play too

In a recent television advertisement for a vodka-based drink, the hero leaves his friends at the night club, goes to his office and settles down to sleep at his desk. He's woken next morning by his boss, who announces that a salary review is clearly in order. Cue sly smile from the employee, whose conscience is as clear as the opaque liquid in question. Wouldn't you just bet that he worked in an insurance company?

What does this vignette say about our attitude to working hours? The implication is that an employer will be impressed by someone who, apparently, is so committed to his job that he will work himself into a stupor. Financial reward is linked not to performance, but to attendance. That the employee is pulling a fast one simply reinforces the alarming fact that he can enhance his career prospects merely by putting in the hours, not by achieving results.

Lengthy ordeal
While it is important not to be too po-faced about humorous ads, this one resonates because it contains a kernel of truth.

Recent research by various agencies suggests the UK has the longest working hours in Europe. Millions of us work

48 hours a week or more. Then, after 10 hours in the office, we take work home with us. And, thanks to our second-rate railways and third-world traffic conditions, that journey to and from home is often a lengthy ordeal.

Somehow we have created a working environment where anyone who leaves work at the appointed time is a slacker. In countless offices around the country, people sit at their desks late into the evening, afraid to be the first to have the temerity to go home. A short-sighted, macho management culture has come to equate loyalty, commitment and ambition with the ability to work yourself into the ground - or at least give that impression.

How have we acquired all this astonishing technology to make life easier, when we're working harder than ever?

The insurance industry is as guilty as any other for working long hours. But change is essential for the long-term good of the business. First, we need to be more civilised or we risk becoming tired, burnt out and under-performing. Second - and perhaps more important - we need to make our industry more attractive or we will fail to recruit the next generation of employees.

We are currently recruiting from "Generation X", which has evolved from a stew of MTV, mobile phones, weekend raves, South Park, body piercing and reality television. They have different expectations and aspirations from us, which we must satisfy.

Younger people are looking for more balance between work and home. They will not sacrifice their personal lives on the altar of ambition, regardless of how much money is thrown at them.

It is time for us to forget about our old hierarchies, routines and traditions, because they are no longer relevant. Generation X thinks differently about seniority, mobility and flexibility.

If the insurance industry is to flourish, it needs to attract the cream of the crop. Are we an attractive prospect? Have we taken the same steps as other industries to reflect the needs and aspirations of Generation X? Some accountancy firms are taking on graduates and giving them an immediate one-year paid sabbatical to give the economy a chance to recover. Do we have that sort of vision and level of confidence?

Improving our approach to the way we work will not only help us attract the people we need. If we create a more considerate, responsive and human industry, we can only benefit ourselves and our customers. How can we expect to delight policyholders and satisfy our various stakeholders if we feel under-valued and over-worked?

Career breaks
On a practical level, we could make more use of communications technology to allow people to work from home. Increase annual leave allowances and, crucially, ensure people take the time off they are due. Offer sabbaticals. Relocate offices from clogged-up urban centres so people can get to and from work easily. Allow career breaks (and not just for child rearing), with appropriate training to help people rejoin the workplace. Invest in adequate administrative services to ease the burden on more senior managers.

We need not aspire to a six-hour day. Lots of hard work still needs to be done and we should be willing to put the hours in - when necessary. But what is wrong with wanting things to improve?

A fundamental shift in attitude is required to dislodge the ingrained notion that falling asleep at your desk is a sign of merit.

The employer in the vodka ad is contemplating a pay rise for someone who is about to start a day's work after an unsatisfactory night's sleep, still wearing yesterday's clothes and probably in need of a shower and a shave.

It just about makes sense in the world of television commercials - but it's time for the insurance industry to wake up and smell the coffee.

Paul Picknett is director of corporate strategy and support at Groupama Insurances