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One of the most essential ingredients in the organisation of work is time: when we work; for how long; and how we balance working time with our life outside work. On average UK workers are still working the longest hours in the European Union (EU), while others are working part-time but want more hours, and more and more workers are being forced onto zero-hours contracts.
The European Union Labour Force Survey in 2014 shows that full-time employees in the UK worked on average the longest hours at 42.4 hours per week, 2 hours more than the 40.4 hours average for the whole of the EU, while those working the shortest hours are Denmark (37.8 hours), Italy (38.7) and The Netherland (38.9). For part-time workers the average for the EU is 20.4 hours per week, with the longest hours worked in Romania (24.5), Sweden and Belgium (24.2) and the shortest hours in Denmark (17.8) and Portugal (18.0). By gender, in 2014, male full-time workers worked longer hours than females at 41 .1 hours per week compared to 39.4 for the EU average, and longer in each EU country too. However, for part-time workers, females work longer hours than males in many but not all EU countries. In the UK 25 per cent of workers work part time and 80 per cent of them are women (Labour Market and EU Labour Force Survey statistics 2014.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures for January to March 2015 show average full-time hours as 37.4 per week and part time as 16.3 hours, up 0.3 hours on same period the previous year.
The 2014 TUC safety representatives' survey found that there was an increase in safety representatives reporting longer hours as a major hazard, at 26 per cent compared to 21 per cent in 2012, and 24 per cent in the public sector compared to 27 per cent in the private sector. Long hours were identified as the third hazard in energy and water (32 per cent) and leisure services (47 per cent); fourth in banking insurance and finance (46 per cent), education (33 per cent), and transport and communications (33 per cent).
Both too many hours of work and too few are a risk to workers' health. Long hours and overwork are bad for mental and physical health: they cause stress, wreck relationships and make caring for children or dependants more difficult, and tired, burnt-out staff are bad for business. Insufficient hours of work mean workers may not earn enough to live on, and the insecurity of varying weekly hours and zero-hours contracts causes insecurity and stress, which can lead to serious ill health. Evidence suggests that it is increasingly difficult for some people to get their jobs done in their contractual hours, that others need more hours of work, others need secure fixed hours, and that there is a mismatch between the hours that people would like to work and the jobs available.
Many people enjoy their jobs and find them fulfilling and are prepared to put in some extra hours when there is an emergency or a sudden increase in orders. But problems arise when long hours become the norm not the exception, and then even longer hours are needed when a real crisis comes along. Full-time employees in the UK work the longest hours in the EU because:
- the law that protects against very long hours is weaker in the UK
- most people are unaware of the laws we do have, and they are not enforced
- more people do the kind of white-collar jobs where overtime is not paid
- many workers work long hours because they are concerned that they might lose their jobs or not be considered for promotion if they do not
- employers expect, and staff are prepared to work, very long hours – the dreaded 'long-hours culture'
- the UK has an 'opt-out' from the EU maximum 48 hour working week.
While many people in the UK do not work excessive hours, in 2013, one in five workers (around six million people) regularly worked more than 45 hours a week, up slightly on the last five years. Regularly working more than 48 hours per week can lead to serious health and safety problems including: increased risk of injury thorough fatigue and loss of concentration; severe headaches and stomach, bowel and other digestive system problems; and stress, depression and even premature death from heart disease. It can lead to low productivity, squeeze out education and training and play a big part in excluding people with caring and other responsibilities from certain jobs. Excessive hours may also lead to increased smoking and drinking and a poor diet, all of which have serious health consequences. A reduction in the time available for family life and parenting, socialising and relaxing can drastically undermine the quality of life. Long-hours workers have no chance of achieving a decent work/life balance (see, for example, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work E-FACTS 57, Family issues and work-life balance).
A study of over 7,000 middle-aged civil servants by researchers at University College London, published in 2011, confirmed that adults working more than 11 hours a day had a more than 67 per cent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who worked an eight-hour day. The same study found a 2.5 times increase in the odds of experiencing a major depressive episode compared with colleagues working the civil service's standard seven to eight hours a day. Professor Stephen Holgate of the Medical Research Council (MRC), which part-funded the investigation, said: "This study might make us think twice about the old adage 'hard work won't kill you'. Tackling lifestyles that are detrimental to health is a key area for the MRC and this research reminds us that it's not just diet and exercise that we need to think about."
Unpaid overtime is on the decline, but progress is so slow that it will take until 2030 to end regular unpaid overtime of more than seven hours every week. According to a 2015 TUC analysis of official statistics, in 2014: UK workers gave their bosses nearly £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime; one in five workers regularly worked extra hours without pay; overtime was down slightly by 0.9 per cent on 2013 but 5 million workers worked an average of 7.7 unpaid hours a week
Unpaid overtime is more common among employees in the public sector than in the private sector, at 27.4 per cent and 18.5 per cent respectively. Education benefits from the most free work with more than 1 million doing unpaid overtime, followed by health and social work (770,000), the scientific and technical sector (500,000), manufacturing (490,000) and wholesale and retail (418,000).
The most free hours per overtime worker are in the education sector at 9.7 hours per week, followed by hospitality at 9.3, mining and quarrying at 9.2, finance at 8.7 and scientific and technical at 8.4. Workers in their forties are most likely to do overtime, with 26 per cent in this age group doing unpaid hours compared to 20.3 per cent for all UK workers. Men make up 51.1 per cent of those working overtime, a total of 1.2 billion unpaid hours a year compared to 0.9 billion for women.
The TUC believes that the employer expectation that managers will take on unpaid overtime may contribute to excluding women from managerial jobs. According to TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady: "Millions of workers go the extra mile every week, boosting the profits of companies while they lose out on thousands of pounds from their pay packets. And this is on top of the one in five jobs that already pays less than the living wage. Bosses encouraging long hours in the office should rethink their approach as stressed, overworked staff are often unhappy and less productive."
The teaching union NASUWT has commented: "The findings show that the often cited claim of teachers 'clocking off' at 3.30pm has always been a myth... that teachers are being scandalously exploited and their lives blighted by excessive workload, leaving them exhausted and stressed. Urgent action needs to be taken to end this unacceptable situation which is contributing to the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention."
Excessive hours seated at work may lead to other problems. Recent research has suggested that remaining seated for too long is bad for your health, regardless of how much exercise you do. Studies have linked excessive sitting with being overweight or obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and premature death. Prolonged sitting is thought to slow the metabolism, which affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure and to break down body fat.
Work Your Proper Hours Day is on the date every year (usually at the end of February) which is calculated to be the point at which the average person who does unpaid overtime finishes the unpaid days they do every year and starts earning for themselves. The campaign calls on employers to recognise the work of staff doing unpaid overtime and suggest ways to deal with long hours and work/life balance.
In 2015 almost 700,000 people were on zero-hours contracts and the majority earn less than the living wage; the TUC states that the average hourly wage was £8.83, one-third less than the average for employees on permanent contracts (£13.39). The health and safety effects of zero-hours contracts are poverty, insecurity and vulnerability to bullying, exploitation and exposure to risk in order to win more hours of work. These cause stress, which can lead to serious physical and mental health effects. Workers on short-term, temporary and agency contracts may also experience some of these effects. The Decent Jobs Deficit: the human cost of zero hours working in the UK (PDF).
Shift work and night work
As long ago as 1977, the ILO report Night Work identified a range of adverse health effects of night work and recommended that workers should not work nights for economic reasons, such as paying off employer costs of capital equipment more quickly. Shift work, night work and long hours are all hazards that should be eliminated or reduced wherever possible. The most serious health effects related to shift and night work are cancer, heart disease and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Recent research shows that sleeping during the day rather than at night disrupts the timing of the action of some genes, which may have serious long-term health effects.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported in late 2007 that "shiftwork involving circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans" and classified shift work as a category 2A carcinogen for both men and women. This was based on a wide range of studies involving both humans and animals and there was evidence to support the hypothesis that changes in sleep patterns suppress the production of melatonin in the body. Melatonin has beneficial effects in preventing some of the steps leading to cancer. It is replenished in the body during the hours of darkness, but night workers are exposed to artificial light during this time, and it is this that inhibits melatonin replenishment. Studies conducted in Denmark in the 1990s began to link this lack of melatonin with the risk of breast cancer for women working prolonged night shifts.
In June 2014 the Office for National Statistics gave figures for those over age 16 working shifts as 5.35 million or about 17 per cent of the workforce. Of these, 500,000 work night shifts, 500,000 work three shifts including night work, 800,000 do either days or nights, 1.3 million do two shifts, 300,000 do twilight or evening shifts and 1.9 million work other types of shift work. 18.7 per cent of men and 15.9 per cent of women do shift work, a total of 3.06 and 2.29 million respectively.
While the Danish government has paid workers' compensation for breast cancer to a number of women workers, including nurses and flight attendants, who had no known risk factors other than working night shifts at least once a week for the past 20 years, the UK has been much slower to act. According to an HSE research report in 2003: "Overall, the evidence for an association of breast cancer risk with shift work is appreciable but not definitive. Further epidemiological research is needed to clarify the relationship." The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) in 2009 carried out its own review of the evidence for shift work being a risk factor for breast cancer and concluded that there was insufficient evidence that shift work doubled the risk of breast cancer. So, unlike Danish women, British women developing breast cancer as a result of prolonged night shift work are unable to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.
However, in March 2010 Dr Lesley Rushton reported in her HSE-commissioned study The Burden of Occupational Cancer (PDF) that annually an estimated 2,000 breast cancer cases and around 550 breast cancer deaths could be attributable to shift work, if such work does indeed cause this cancer. The HSE response was to commission the University of Oxford to undertake an extensive study on the relationship between shift work and chronic disease, with a focus on shift-working patterns in relation to cancer and other chronic conditions in men and women. The study was due for completion by December 2015, by which time another 1,500 women will have died of breast cancer, and some of these deaths may have been related to night work.
hift work is also associated with heart disease but a review of evidence carried out by the IIAC and published in December 2009 concluded that there was insufficient evidence that shift work doubled the risk of ischemic heart disease. The IIAC doubling of risk argument has been criticised by many experts (see Hazards Magazine Mean Test).
A study of type 2 diabetes by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that women who work a rotating schedule that includes three or more night shifts per month, in addition to day and evening work in that period, have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study compared women on rotating shifts with those who only worked days or evenings. They also found that extended years of rotating night shift work was associated with weight gain, which is also known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Previous studies have focused on the association between shift work and risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Swedish research in 2005 suggested that women who experience stress and a lack of control over their work could be at a greater risk of this category of diabetes (TUC Risks 195). The HSPH study showed that long-term rotating night-shift work is an additional risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes as the risk increases with the numbers of years working rotating shifts: those women who worked rotating night shifts for three to nine years faced a 20 per cent increased risk; women who worked these shifts for 10 to 19 years upped the risk by 40 per cent; and women who worked rotating night shifts for over 20 years were 58 per cent more at risk.
The Working Time Regulations 1998, the Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2003, and the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005 address working hours. These regulations are dealt with in detail below. However, there are a number of more general laws that also apply to working hours. Duties may be found in other chapters of Hazards at Work.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states the obligations placed upon employers to make suitable and sufficient assessments of risks to their employees. Risk assessments must take account of the provisions of the Working Time Regulations 1998, the Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2003, and the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005 (see below).
The 48-hour week
The European Union Working Time Directive sets 48 hours as the maximum working week. In introducing the Working Time Regulations, the British government demanded the EU permit an 'opt-out' for UK workers, which was granted. The opt-out allows employers to ask their workers to sign a document saying that they are willing to work more than a 48-hour week; but there are real concerns that employers can pressure workers to 'voluntarily agree' with them that they can work in excess of the 48-hour maximum. The opt-out has been reviewed by EU minsters several times and, despite evidence from the TUC and others contradicting government and business claims that removal would have economic cost, it has been maintained, meaning UK workers are not properly protected against the dangers of overwork.
The TUC's view has always been that there should be no exemptions from health and safety law and continues to campaign for an end to the opt-out. Long hours of work damage physical and mental health and are a cause of fatigue, which affects performance and concentration in a similar manner to alcohol, so long hours undermine health and safety. In addition, long hours are bad for productivity, prevent any chance of achieving a good work/life balance, and discriminate against women workers.
Unions will want to end long hours as soon as possible, and are aware that the opt-out provisions may end before long. However, some members' earnings will have been boosted by the opt-out and in those instances unions will have to be careful about protecting them. However, the opt-out is generally most valuable to employers so unions may use it as a bargaining chip to ensure that there are real negotiations about ending long hours.
Enforcement of the working time regulations
Enforcement is split between different authorities. The limits and health assessments (if a night worker) are enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, local authority environmental health departments, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (which replaced the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) in April 2014) and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR). The entitlements to rest and leave are enforced through employment tribunals. The Employment Tribunals Service can also help with information about making a claim or about tribunal procedures.
If you need more information about the Regulations, either contact your own trade union, or:
- For more information about the Working Time Regulations, either contact your own trade union or, for queries about time off, rest breaks, paid annual leave and other general employment information, call the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) national helpline on 0300 123 1100 Monday – Friday, 8am–8pm and Saturday, 9am–1pm, or online.
- For information about tribunals, call the Employment Tribunals Service enquiry line on:
Telephone: 0300 123 1024 (England and Wales)
Telephone: 0141 354 8574 (Scotland)
Minicom: 01509 221564 or online.
Since 30 June 2014 all employees with 26 weeks' continuous service have the statutory right to request a change to their contract terms to work flexibly. There is no longer any need to be a carer or have special reason to justify the request, which can be turned down only for one of eight statutory 'business reasons'. The employer's focus should be on whether the request can be met taking into account the business reasons listed in the legislation, and not on the employee's personal reasons for wanting to work flexibly. However, the employee's given reason is still relevant because the employer's duty not to discriminate unlawfully means that any policy must take account of protected groups, particularly employees with caring responsibilities and disabled workers. The new law is in part 8 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (FDA 14). Acas Code of Practice and Guidance: Handling in a reasonable manner requests to work flexibly (PDF).
Zero-hours contracts (ZHC)
On 26 May 2015 an important provision regarding zero-hours contracts was made law in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. The provision bans so-called exclusivity clauses – contract terms that require workers to accept work from that employer alone. Only a small minority of ZCH arrangements (one in ten) were exclusive in this way.
All aspects of working time – hours of work, shift work, night work, long hours, unpaid overtime, zero hours and temporary short-term contracts – can have deleterious effects on workers' health and on health and safety in the workplace that can be eliminated or reduced. Shift work has advantages for both employers and employees, from maximising plant use and reducing production costs to better earnings for fewer hours' work and opportunities for flexitime. Shift work is essential to many industries and services, whether it's down to the needs of a continuous production cycle or the 24-hour demands made on emergency and hospital services. But some schedules, particularly night shifts, can be more demanding on employee wellbeing and health than others. There are a number of positive steps that safety representatives can take to raise awareness of the health effects and tackle problems to do with working time such as fatigue and physical and mental ill-health and to negotiate measures to protect workers' health and safety and improve work-life balance.
Safety representatives can help to identify sources of risk, mobilise members and press employers to comply fully with the law on working time and night work, and make improvements to policies and practice.
Safety representatives can identify if there is a problem by:
- carrying out a survey with all workers, ensuring those on all shift and working patterns and different contracts are included
- using mapping techniques such as body mapping and risk mapping
- examining accident and sickness records for any patterns related to working time
- doing a special inspection that focuses on all aspects of working time
- using a checklist from your union, Acas or the HSE on specific issues such as fatigue or night work
- speaking to workers to identify any health problems they have that may be related to working time
- ensuring that all aspects of working time are properly risk assessed, taking account of gender, age and other issues.
Safety representatives should report their concerns and these of members to management in writing.
Varying the law by collective agreement
The Working Time Regulations 1998 and the Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2003 allow considerable flexibility by agreement. In the right circumstances, flexibility may be valued by workers as many want more control over their hours and patterns of work. Flexibility is certainly valued by employers, and the right to conclude such deals may prove valuable in bargaining towards a better work-life balance. Therefore, in some cases unions will want to take advantage of these flexibilities, while being careful to maintain full health and safety protection for their members.
The list below identifies the rules that can be varied by collective agreement:
- the definition of working time can be extended beyond the definition in the regulations
- the reference period for a 48-hour week can be extended to 52 weeks
- the definition of night time can be extended for night workers
- the definition of night workers can be extended to include more people
- the reference period for night work can be converted from a rolling 17-week average to consecutive blocks of 17 weeks
- the definition of night work involving heavy physical and mental strain can be broadened; in such cases the eight-hour night work limit is an absolute one – not an average
- night work limits can be loosened by agreement, providing that 'compensatory rest' of the same time value is given later on
- the right to 11 hours' rest per day can be loosened by agreement, providing that 'compensatory rest' of the same time value is given later on
- the right to 24 hours' rest in a seven-day period can be loosened by agreement, providing that 'compensatory rest' of the same time value is given later on
- the definition of a seven-day period can be varied; where there is no agreement, it is the beginning of each working week
- the timing of a rest break of 20 minutes where the working day is more than six hours
- the date when annual leave year begins
- the period of notice before annual leave can be taken.
A number of deals have been struck that have ended excessive hours without any loss of earnings or with only a slight reduction in earnings. These deals have come about after very broad negotiations around hours and patterns of work organisation, investment and training.
Opt-out forms must specify the period of notice the employee has to give if they want to opt back in at a later date. Unions may want to ensure that the notice period is as short as possible.
Unions will want to ensure that opt-outs are not simply imposed on workers by default. Some companies have merely sent opt-out forms to new employees requesting that they sign and return them before they start.
Similarly, some workers have been bullied into signing and retaining opt-outs. This is simply illegal and unions will not tolerate it.
Instead of the standard daily, weekly and in-work rest breaks set out by the Working Time Directive, some rail and road workers are entitled to 'adequate rest'. Trade unions may want to adopt the common sense position that the time value of the breaks and rest periods set out in the Working Time Directive are intended to be the minimum standard to achieve proper protection for these workers.
In some cases, the Working Time Directive allows for 'compensatory rest' – some flexibility about when the breaks and rest periods are taken. This could provide a starting point for negotiation. Unions may also want to try to ensure that adequate rest arrangements are subject to periodic review in order to make sure that they are working and to see whether they can be improved.
It is clear that many employers who are already covered by the Working Time Directive still do not understand the law or are breaking it deliberately. Some 6 million workers have already gained extra holidays from the directive, but official statistics suggest that three-quarters of a million non-union workers are not getting what they are due. Trade unions will also want to negotiate to ensure that public holidays are extra to the four weeks' annual leave in the new regulations.
Different shift pattern have different impacts on workers' health, including fatigue. Trade unions will want to be consulted about the effects of current or proposed shift patterns on workers and negotiate shifts with the least effects on workers' health. Permanent night shifts can be replaced by rotating shifts, if possible (research shows that rotating shifts every two to three days is best) or, failing that, slow rotations of at least three weeks. Weekly or fortnightly rotations are least comfortable for workers, whose bodies will just have started to adapt to the new pattern when it is switched again. Forward-rotating schedules (from morning to afternoon to night shifts) are better than backward-rotating shifts in terms of sleep loss and fatigue. Check your own trade union's guides, the HSE and Acas.
Fatigue can develop from long hours, excessive workloads and shift patterns. Use the HSE RR446 tool The Development of a Fatigue/Risk Index for Shiftworkers to assess the risks of shift work.
(in alphabetical order)
- "Working the Night Shift: Practical Solutions to Longstanding Problems"
- Flexible working and work-life balance (PDF)
- Working Time Regulations
- The full original Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform advice
This replaced VOSA in 2014.
Excellent news and resources from the Hazards magazine website.
- The Working Time Regulations 1998
- The Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2003
- Managing Shift Work (PDF) HSG256
- "Human Factors Fatigue"
- HSE Research Report RR446 Fatigue Risk Index For Workers (including a calculator tool)
- HSE research on the link between shift work and breast cancer.
- Carers in the Workplace: a Guide to Negotiating Flexible Working and Leave
- Work-Life Balance
- Working Time: a Guide to the Regulations
- Law at Work 2015
OSHA Europe – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
E-FACTS 57: Family Issues and Work-Life Balance
Essential information for safety representatives. Keep up to date on health and safety by registering to receive Risks, the TUC's weekly e-bulletin for safety representatives.
Trade union information
Many unions provide guidance on working time. For example:
Issued: 5 April, 2013