Flexibility will manage opt-out

If the Working Time Directive was removed, HR will be forced to work harder to ensure flexibility in the workplace. HR will also have the opportunity to showcase how vital the function is

Employers seem to love it, unions tend to hate it, workers are split and the French are now begging for it – the UK opt-out to the Working Time Directive (WTD) remains as controversial as ever.

After a European Commission report criticised the UK for having the longest working hours culture in the EU, employers hit back saying the opt-out is essential to maintaining the economy and freedom of choice for staff to work the hours they choose.

The commission has now launched a new consultation into the WTD, and employers’ bodies say alterations to, or a loss of the WTD, could be devastating for the country.

If anyone should be worried about possible changes, it’s HR, the front line when it comes to implementing working measures. But a recent survey by Croner Consulting showed that three in five HR professionals thought employers should not be able to ask staff to work more than their set limit of hours.

So are employers wrong to foretell such doom and gloom? It is widely accepted that certain industries would be in real trouble if the opt-out was removed, such as manufacturing, engineering and catering.

David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers Federation, said that loss or change to the opt-out would inhibit companies’ ability to respond to production requirements and anger employees who would be unable to work the hours and earn the money they want.

But these industries seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Instead, it seems that industry is largely unconcerned. Even the health sector, widely believed to live in fear of a loss of the opt-out, believes it would be a problem rather than a catastrophe.

Peter King, executive officer at the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management, believes HR’s effectiveness will make or break the system.

“A loss of the opt-out would have an impact as large numbers of people voluntarily work 48 hours plus [in the healthcare sector],” he said. “But we have more staff in the pipeline and future workforce plans that are predicated on civilised working hours of less than 48 hours.”

Tony Gould, managing director of global HR strategy consultancy DBM, agreed that changes to the opt-out could provide HR with a chance to really shine.

“If we have to adhere to the WTD, boards will rely heavily on HR executives to come up with solutions,” he said. “If HR executives can demonstrate an understanding of business needs and solutions, it will re-emphasise their importance to the board.”

Angela O’Connor is HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which employs 7,500 staff, including lawyers who have to work long hours on cases. She said good business sense dictates that the work focus should be on outcomes, not presenteeism, and that if staff had to work into the night, the CPS had policies to take extra hours into account when it came to new rosters.

“We have never needed legislation to stop staff killing themselves with work,” O’Connor said. “We are more concerned about encouraging a healthy lifestyle.”

Working under the presumption that the opt-out is in terminal decline might be a good idea after a government poll showed eight in 10 staff would prefer to spend more time with friends and family in 2004 – if only they could balance their work and lives more effectively.

Changing demographics will also push HR to implement greater flexibility. The Equal Opportunities Commission believes that by 2010, just 20 per cent of the working population will be white, male, able-bodied and under 45 years of age.

Jill Hubbard, assistant director of HR at Hertfordshire County Council -which employs 29,000 people – said the opt-out was useful in emergency situations, and that she wouldn’t want to lose the flexibility it offered. But she also added that on a day-to-day basis, it was HR’s job proactively to make plans that would limit the impact of any changes made to the opt-out.

With the exception of certain sectors where time supersedes flexibility, HR seems to believe the impact of alterations or a loss of the opt-out will be limited.

At worst, changes to the opt-out will force HR to work harder to ensure suitable flexibility in the workforce. At best, it will offer an opportunity to show the business community that the function is indispensable.

Working Time Regulations

  • Basic rights and protections provided by the Working Time Regulations are:

  • A limit of an average of 48 hours a week in which a worker can be required to work (although through the opt-out, staff can choose to work more if they wish)

  • A limit of an average of eight hours work in 24 which night workers can be required to work

  • A right for night workers to receive free health assessments

  • Eleven hours rest a day

  • A day off each week

  • An in-work rest break if the working day is longer than six hours

  • Four weeks paid leave per year

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