Opt out of taking liberties

Visions of the good life have frequently imposed restrictions on working time. In Utopia, Thomas More said the working day should be no more than six hours long; the Italian renaissance thinker Tommaso Campanella reckoned in City of the Sun that four should suffice, a recommendation seconded much later by Bertrand Russell. “The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work,” he wrote in his essay, In Praise of Idleness.

All of them had drastic plans for work, yet they would have dismissed as utterly utopian the proposal that the European Union council of ministers will debate, when it decides the fate of the opt-out from the Working Time Directive – the idea that it is possible to reform working time in isolation from the reform of work. Addressing the problem of working time while leaving untouched all the many deep and complex issues connected with it, such as pay, social class, job design, stress, work culture and the psychological contract, would have been, to them, like fixing the sea when the ship starts to leak.

Time is inseparable from work. Making ends meet on poverty pay – and remember, according to the European Commission, 20 million people in the old EU 15 fall into this category – frequently demands very long hours. To avoid a drop in income when hours are capped, a rise in pay needs to accompany the fall in hours. But, alas, no such settlement is on the table.

It’s an artificial, otherworldly kind of debate – all the more so because key groups of workers who work long hours, such as many managers and professionals and all the self-employed, are not covered by the working time directive anyway. But it’s no use protesting. This summer, we find out if the opt-out lives or dies.

There are two good reasons for scrapping the opt-out. First, if significant numbers of people felt they were forced to sign it; and second, if working long hours could be demonstrated to inflict harm upon individuals and potential harm on society at large through the risk of exhausted people making mistakes and having accidents.

If the compulsion or harm arguments can be supported with firm evidence, then government has a duty to protect the vulnerable. But if neither argument succeeds convincingly, then the default libertarian position of business and the Department of Trade and Industry should endure. It is not the job of government to tell people how to use their time and both business and the DTI believe that British economic success relies on the gluttonous consumption of work time.

So how strong is the harm case? According to a 2003 report, Working Time: Its Impact on Safety and Health (1) by Dr Anne Spurgeon for the International Labour Office, regularly working more than 48 hours a week creates stress and “significantly increases the risk of mental health problems”. Cardiovascular conditions are associated with regular working weeks of more than 60 hours – and possibly 50 hours. The report judges the data on the effect of long hours on both safety and family life to be inconclusive.

Working Long Hours,(2) a 2003 report for the UK Health & Safety Executive, is more equivocal. There is “sufficient evidence to be concerned” about the connection between long hours and physical ill health, and “some evidence” regarding mental health and stress, it finds. But the interplay of psycho-social factors makes conclusions difficult. The harm caused by long hours is mediated by individual characteristics, such as the type of occupation, the nature of the work environment, and the degree of control over working time and rest periods.

Do these two reports justify placing restrictions on working time? In my humble, and doubtless faulty, judgement, I don’t think so. Even allowing for the academic devotion to caveat, they constitute grounds for concern, not state intervention. The evidence must become much firmer for the libertarian position to be defeated.

What about the compulsion argument? Everyone accepts that the choice to work long hours is an imperfect one. In the UK, we have an increasingly ‘above and beyond’ kind of working culture in which stinting how much of oneself is given to work looks bad, negative, ‘un-committed’. Yet this cultural work ethic is not the same as the definite denial of choice – ie, coercion.

However, evidence appears to suggest that large numbers of employees believe they have been compelled to sign away their rights. According to a survey of 752 long-hours workers (3) by the (pro opt-out) Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 30% felt forced to work long hours, while 21% were forced to sign the opt-out. Bearing in mind that only 37% of respondents recalled actually signing the opt-out, this rate of compulsion is disturbing, and reinforces a TUC survey which found that one in four long-hours workers had no choice about whether to sign.

Such figures indicate that the opt-out is being widely abused by employers, whether by direct, or indirect, pressure. Compulsion is anathema to all good libertarians, and is of dubious economic value. But should the abuse suffered by a minority restrict the desire of other long-hours workers to carry on working as they choose? Interfering with ‘the freedom to work’ is not something governments do lightly. The test was whether “significant numbers” felt compelled. Between a fifth and a quarter is significant, so the opt-out should go.


1. Working Time: Its Impact on Safety and Health by Anne Spurgeon, International Labour Office, 2003

2. Working Long Hours, Health & Safety Laboratory for the Health & Safety Executive, 2003

3. Working Time Regulations: Calling Time on Working Time, CIPD, 2004



Comments are closed.