Employers are beginning to realise the benefits of ensuring their staff do
not work excessive hours, and are taking action with the help of new technology
It’s a sign of the times that we spend too much time on the job rather than too
little. That creates a new use for time and attendance systems, which, besides
their traditional function, are now starting to be used to ensure that staff
don’t overdo it.
One in 10 of those in employment worked 61 hours or more every week last
year, according to Umist’s Quality of Work-Life survey, while a further 30 per
cent spent clocked up more than 51 hours. That’s a slight improvement over 1999
but Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at
Manchester School of Management, still finds the result "appalling".
"Companies are employing fewer people to keep the cost base down, so they
are overloading their existing staff," he says.
Pressure of work is compounded by the problem of "presenteeism",
where individuals hang around at the office either because they feel they have
to in order to show commitment, or because they want to boost earnings through
overtime. The problem is particularly acute for middle managers, also for
occupations such as teaching, law and IT, where being seen to leave at 5.30pm
can count as a black mark.
This was one of the issues that the incoming Labour Government promised to
tackle four years ago. The Working Time regulations introduced in 1998
stipulate a maximum of 48 hours a week for each employee. However, the original
requirement for hours to be recorded was later rescinded, following pressure
Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for
enforcing the regulations, has not been the dragon some employers feared.
That’s a pity, say work-life experts, who think a wake-up call is needed for UK
businesses to tackle the culture of overtime.
"It might have been a useful way of making people realise what they
were doing," comments Nick Burkitt, research fellow at the Institute for
Public Policy Research and author of a new study on work-life balance.
"You can reduce overworking substantially just by making people aware of
the hours they are working and questioning whether they need to do so
Many people who work long hours are well paid and do so by choice, but
others lower down the scale have to strive to reach an acceptable weekly wage,
Burkitt points out. That can result in harming their health and family
relationships, creating social costs that are not reflected in market prices.
However, he acknowledges the challenge, saying, "The difficult question
is how to find a mechanism for changing companies’ and individuals’ behaviour,
given the minimal impact of the existing Working Time regulations."
So what can enlightened businesses do to keep their staff workload to
sensible limits? One San Francisco company solved the problem by simply
shutting off the electricity at 5pm, making it pointless to stay. A less
drastic approach is being adopted by Microsoft, which is offering to make a
donation to the NSPCC for every employee that leaves by 5.30pm.
Yet perhaps the most obvious solution is to take advantage of time and
attendance systems, which have matured to provide a level of functionality
hardly envisaged 20 years ago. According to Graham Reinelt, managing director
of HFX, they can now easily be configured to monitor staff working hours.
"It is simply a matter of writing in the appropriate rule," he
explains. "Each employee’s record includes the hours they are contracted
to work. By monitoring the times they have been coming in and leaving, managers
and supervisors can spot when they go into unauthorised overtime."
The latest version of HFX’s Windows-based system can have the Working Time
regulations added as a separate module, although Reinelt says employers have
yet to show any real interest in this feature.
There is more to the automated approach, however, than just knowing whether
an individual is in or out, argues David Hughes, UK marketing manager for Kronos.
In the US the complexity of the process is implied in the term "front-line
labour management", he points out. That contrasts with the UK’s "Time
and attendance" which tends to perpetuate the simple notion of clocking on
The real issue is activity management, Hughes asserts – monitoring what a
person is doing throughout the day. The ability to measure that activity
provides managers with all the information they need for decision-making. That
is understood at some of the more forward thinking organisations, he says,
particularly call centres, where time efficiency is paramount.
Hughes too finds that most employers have yet to embrace time and attendance
systems for combating overwork or complying with Working Time regulations.
However, a few have been making moves in this direction.
Sectors where the technology is likely to have major uses are those where
staff work irregular shifts and tend not to be anchored to a single location,
conditions in which overtime can easily get out of control. That applies
particularly to catering and leisure. Kronos has two hotel clients that use
special modules integrated into their time and attendance systems to help
ensure this does not happen.
One is Millennium Hotels and Resorts, which tracks each employee’s hours
over a 17-week period. These are checked on a weekly basis by personnel and
payroll managers, who will respond at once if the statutory 48 hours are
exceeded. Over the full period the managers will also ensure that the employee
has had adequate breaks. "The hotel’s raison d’àtre is to provide top
quality customer service, and bearing in mind that it operates in a 24-hour
environment, anything it can do to avoid presenteeism has to be a good
thing," explains Hughes. "Having access to all the data enables
front-line managers and supervisors at any level to know what is going
The system spots when an "exception" has occurred, that is when an
employee has clocked out late or is about to exceed the 48-hour weekly limit.
It will then fire off an e-mail to a senior member of staff.
However, since managers will not necessarily be working at a screen it can
also be configured to send messages to their PDAs or, better yet, to mobile
phones, which ring to let them know the instant a problem occurs. This mobility
means that as well as keeping an eye on waiters and room attendants, the system
can also be used for workers in the field or in other locations.
Although Working Time compliance is not a main reason for purchasing time
and attendance technology, suppliers say this is increasingly becoming a
selling point. Those who need to upgrade an existing system, or acquire one to
deal with ordinary absenteeism, can be shown how to take advantage of it for
this purpose too, says Tristan Spencer, business development director at
Spencer is keen to promote the idea that the systems should be used for
planning rather than monitoring. Knowing that a particular project will involve
certain staff in extra hours, and being able to alter the plan accordingly, is
more useful than simply finding out after the event that the employee has done
too much work.
"If you are not carrying out proper planning you end up doing
everything with hindsight," he points out. "Most companies have shift
regulations, but don’t always monitor in advance where these patterns change,
which increasingly happens as organisations becomes more flexible."
The changing organisational culture means that more pressure is put on
individuals, which in turn raises the chances of the Working Time rules being
flouted, he adds. "Companies used to ensure agreements in advance, which
meant that regulations were respected. But with flexible working, they are at
SmartPeopleTime has supplied Rhodia, a global chemical firm where Working
Time regulation compliance has been one of several concerns. Other clients include Cargo Service Centre,
an air-cargo handling company based at Heathrow.
"The nature of our business prevents us from rostering employees onto
regular shift patterns, so we operate a large variety of working shifts,"
says Cargo’s quality manager Steve Ainsley. "This makes staff rostering
and time management a complex and time consuming task. Now we are able to
manage and plan working time easily and effectively."
The system also ensures that everyone covering an absence has the correct
skills and will not breach the Working Time regulations or company terms and
conditions. "We are able to make the best use of our staff and ensure they
are in the right place at the right time to give our customers the service they
demand," he says. Because staff wages account for around 70 per cent of
our costs, the company expects a quick return on its investment.
However, when it comes to overworking not everyone thinks technology is a
total solution. "From a psychological perspective, automated systems have
been shown to have a negative effect on morale and retention," says Colin
Barnes, practice director of HR consultancy Sapient Partners. "You need to
get behind the reasons for each individual doing too many hours, and this may
require a bespoke managerial intervention rather than the organisational
The easier way to address the issue may be to consider it at the point of
selection through the competency model, he suggests. "In most companies’
competency frameworks it already exists as a negative behaviour under headings
such as ‘motivation’, ‘commitment’ or ‘taking responsibility’, so why not use
Similarly, Umist’s Cooper says he would prefer to see managers leading from
the top by example, or else creating more flexible arrangements, perhaps
involving working from home. That would not necessarily diminish the workload,
but it would mean that individuals would not feel the need to appear to their
colleagues to be working when they would rather be at home.
A managerial approach was adopted by Staffline, a recruitment agency that
implemented a 48-hour week when the Working Time regulations were first
"We were being seriously affected by our staff’s excessive
overtime," explains operations director Andy Coop. "Average working
hours for recruitment specialists were from 7.30am to 6pm and burnout was a big
problem." The staff turnover rate of over 30 per cent, while not unusual
for the sector, was clearly unacceptable, especially with leavers citing long
working hours as the reason for their departure.
The company has now adopted a system where each branch manager logs his
staff’s working hours and report instances of overworking to directors at head
office. Their views will then be fed back to the manager, who will discuss the
problem with the individual and explore means of reducing the workload.
Since introducing the system staff turnover has dropped from 30 per cent to
21 per cent and continues to fall, while morale has gone up and excessive
working hours is less frequently given as a reason for people leaving.
However, the company acknowledges that technology could help ensure the
problem is brought fully under control. "Although we have made significant
progress, long working hours are still an issue and we are committed to finding
ways to reduce them," says Coop. A new £1m IT system to be introduced
shortly will provide automation, which Coop says will finally help to resolve
Ultimately it seems likely that a combination of managerial processes and
automation will emerge as a means of controlling an endemic social evil. And
increasingly businesses will realise the benefits of technology to achieve
this, either by integrating dedicated software modules to existing systems or
investing in new ones.
As the experts insist, this is not solely a technical issue but one of
people management. When the problem itself is recognised, the solution will be
seen to be close at hand.
For contact details of suppliers mentioned in this feature, go to www.personneltoday.com/directory
The working time regulations
– A cap of an average 48 hours a week that employees can normally be
required to work, although they can choose to work more if they want to
– A limit of an average eight hours in 24 for night workers
– Night workers to receive free health assessments
– 11 hours of rest each day
– At least one day off each week
– An in-work rest break if the working day is longer than six hours
– A right to four weeks’ paid leave per year
– Enhanced rights for adolescent workers