The Dangers of a Long Working Week

04 October 2016

The UK remains infamous, amongst the EU nations, for working the longest hours with people in full time employment working an average of 42.4 hours per week.

In many cases these people put-in the long working hours because they love their work, enjoy the social aspects or acquire enormous fulfilment from their roles. In other cases they rise to the challenge of an emergency or a short term increase in demand.

We all recognise these aspects but there are sections of the workforce where long hours are not the exception but the norm and this is when issues begin to arise, especially if the underlying drive is a negative one.

There are a host of negative pressures as to why workers in the UK participate in longer hours which include, but not limited to, a “long hours culture” based on both employer and employee expectation, white-collar work does not attract overtime payments, employees concerned about losing their jobs, UK has an opt-out of the Working Time Directive and many businesses seek voluntary opt-out of their employees, employees concerned about promotion and finally, awareness of the legal framework and lack of compliance.

There are also exemptions such as self-employed and sector specific employees such as workers on board sea-going fishing vessels.

The legal framework is quite extensive and has been driven, substantively, by the EU encompassing a raft of Directives and subordinate legislation together with domestic initiatives driven, in part, by Trade Unions and the Health and Safety Executive. However, enforcement is quite fragmented and rests with Environmental Health Departments, Health and Safety Executive, Ministry of Transport Bodies and Employment Tribunals to name a few.

It is believed and generally accepted that there are potentially serious health risks associated with long hours.

There have been many studies conducted by competent European and domestic bodies outlining the issues and consequences of working excessive hours over a prolonged period. It is said that regularly working in excess of 48 hours per week may lead to an increased risk of injury to the employee and co-workers because of loss of concentration and tiredness.

Individual workers can experience headaches, problems with their digestive system, severe stomach and bowel problems. It has also been reported that there is a lifestyle impact demonstrated by increased smoking and alcohol intake combined with a deterioration in diet which may lead to significant health conditions including heart disease, depression and stress.

Most of all there is a potential for a massive impact on the work life balance of workers which affects the quality of life for the individual and their families. What is more surprising is that long hours may have a discriminatory effect upon the workforce too. As an example, many women may be put off from managerial or more senior positions because these roles often come with the price-tag of un-paid overtime. 

So Where Can We Go from Here?

There are a myriad of steps and some key points are outlined here.

First, there should be a universal acceptance that long hours can have a detrimental effect on the health of workers.

Second, the employers and employees should work collaboratively to identify the risks specific to their sector and upgrade procedures/practices and policies to make them more compliant.

Third, a greater understanding of the law and its practical application in all sectors would be helpful and a drive to ensure that all employers comply fully with their obligations.

Finally, the UK Government should have, at its heart, the desire to drive change within the workplace to ensure a better work life balance for all employees which will drive efficiencies, productivity and reduce illness with the obvious financial benefit to all.

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