What will the working week opt-out mean for the UK? There was considerable debate when the EU limited the weekly work time to 48 hours. However, several member states have opted-out of this directive. First of all, it seems rather strange that the EU even allowed the opt-out. It means that not all of their directives are set in stone. (In fact, I have yet to find one that is.)
Anyhow, companies argue that in this recession, they should be allowed to choose their own hours. They feel that employees should be given the option of working overtime for additional pay. OK. That sounds fair enough. Everyone’s trying to do what they can to survive. But working excessive hours continuously can be detrimental to a person’s health, physically and psychologically. Already, the recession has created stress. Need employees feel more stress by increased work demands? Though they may not be forced to work longer hours, they may be under pressure to increase performance or be replaced. Companies will increase work load on the smaller staff that they now employ. Anxiety and insomnia go hand-in-hand and the dangers of lack of sleep cannot be ignored.
Speaking of recession and unemployment, why not hire more people but keep the same level of pay-out? Instead of having someone work overtime, which usually means a higher rate of pay unless they are salaried, employ someone else to work those hours. You can stay within the working hours limit and help with unemployment at the same time. Not all companies will opt-out, even though the UK allows them to do so. Therefore, it will be argued, the opt-out gives companies more freedom in determining what works for them. After all, shift work has never been popular and there are dangers with that.
One of the jobs most notable for long hours is the junior doctor role. Being a doctor is stressful in itself. Long hours make it worse. However, limiting working hours to 48 is not exactly doable. Especially because they have “on-call” rotas. Contrary to popular myths about a doctor’s daily rounds, it is not filled with high drama as depicted on TV. There may be days like that, but for the most part, junior doctors are not rushing around on emergencies throughout the day.
So, how can we protect employees’ interests while ensuring that companies can still function properly in this recession? I suppose it would be best determined individually. But we must be vigilant to prevent people from being exploited at a time when they fear they may lose their jobs. Increases in errors or accidents may be due to stress or inadequate sleep/rest. When this occurs, there should be some consideration for reducing the employee’s working hours in an attempt to resolve the issues. But this should be done in such a way that the employee does not feel demeaned or fear unemployment as a reprimand.