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What have the Working Time Regulations done for us?

For over 15 years the Working Time Regulations 1998 have provided structure for UK employers in working out working hours.

For over 15 years the Working Time Regulations 1998 have provided structure for UK employers in working out working hours. The legislation was introduced primarily to protect employees from working excessively long hours against their will and to safeguard health and safety by defining entitlements to minimum daily and weekly rest breaks.

But what effect have the Regulations had in practice? Are we working less and resting more? What impact has the regulation of working time had on UK employers?

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has published an analysis of the impact of the Regulations on the UK labour market. The report runs to 90 pages, and is packed with detailed statistics. Its key conclusions are outlined below.

We’re working less – but it’s not clear why

The study shows that, since 1998, there has been a decline in long hours working in the UK and a general trend towards shorter working hours. It concludes that this may, at least in part, be due to the introduction of the 48 hour maximum working week (despite the existence of the ‘opt-out’ by which employees can agree to work more than this). However, employers may also have found other ways to adjust to the regulation of working time, such as taking on more workers doing shorter weeks.

We’re working differently

The analysis also identifies a general trend towards a more diverse range of working patterns. The landscape of the labour market is very different to that of the 1990s. Technological changes allowing employees to work on the move or from home mean that the traditional concept of a continuous working day does not apply to an increasing number of workers. There has also been a ‘structural adjustment’ in the economy away from types of work that rely on long hours working to jobs that can be done more flexibly.

Well-paid men work longest

The analysis shows that men are more likely than women to work long hours (19% of men compared with 7% of women). Women with children under 5 were the least likely to work long hours. However, it’s not clear whether this takes into account the ‘catching up’ time that many women with family responsibilities often put in away from the workplace. The study also found that long-hours working is more prevalent amongst highly-skilled and highly paid workers – a reverse of the situation in the 1960s and 1970s when the lower-paid worked the longest hours.

The opt-out is important – to everyone

The survey concludes that retaining the opt-out is very important both to UK businesses and UK employees. It identifies widespread use of the opt-out across UK businesses, with roughly one third of workplaces having at least one employee ‘opted-out’ and 15% of workplaces opting out all their employees. Whilst there is some support amongst Trade Unions for removing the opt-out, the BIS analysis suggests that most employees currently working over the maximum would not want to reduce their working time if it meant less pay. Businesses also value the flexibility and the ability to respond to peaks and troughs of work that the opt-out provides.

Working time is a worry

Despite the passage of time, working time still worries UK employers. Common complaints are around complexity, for exactly what constitutes working time and what constitutes rest time (especially where workers are required to be on-call or ‘sleep-over’). There is also a high level of awareness and concern amongst UK businesses regarding recent European case-law impacting on the Working Time Regulations. The accrual of annual leave during sickness absence, the ‘carry-over’ of annual leave and the proper calculation of holiday pay are cited as particular worries.

Changes on the way?

The European Commission recently launched a public consultation on proposed changes to the Working Time Directive (the European law from which the Working Time Regulations are derived). The proposed changes controversially include the removal of the ‘opt-out’, meaning that the 48 hour maximum working week would need to be strictly enforced.

Weightmans plans to respond to this consultation on behalf our clients. Watch this space for your chance to have your say.

If you have any queries about working time please speak to your usual Weightmans contact or get in touch with Phil Allen in our Manchester office phil.allen@weightmans.com.