The European Commission's decision to review the Working Time Directive (WTD) has to be seen as a welcome opportunity to review legislation, conceived more than 20 years ago, in the light of fundamental changes to the economy, technology and working patterns says Neil Howe, senior legal author with online health and safety legislation specialists Cedrec.
The WTD sets minimum standards on working hours per week, annual leave, rest periods and special provisions on night work, on-call working time and stand-by periods. So, why is it now right to review this important piece of legislation?
There's a general consensus that the changes in working patterns that have occurred over the past two decades have given rise to new opportunities for far more flexible working time arrangements for both employers and employees if UK PLC is going to continue to compete and succeed in a highly competitive and global 24/7 economy.
It's surely evident that the traditional 9 - 5 working day is now a thing of the past and with it, a different type of workplace. Advances in mobile technology are seeing more and more of us no longer working from central locations such as offices and factories; leading to a rise in tele, flexi and home working - and with it the seemingly irresistible desire for too many of us to remain connected to the working environment by checking our emails and social media messages beyond contracted hours of work, or during week-ends.
A 2011 CBI study reported that the number of people working from home is on the increase in the UK with 59% of those employers who responded to a survey offering teleworking options - up from 13% in 2006. Around 2.8 million workers admitted to teleworking at least some of the time.
Having constant access to work through smartphones, tablets and laptops has obvious benefits but is also blurring even more the boundaries between work and home life, posing additional health and safety risks (those who continue to 'login' are more likely to suffer problems with their health and social life as they fret about work and feel compelled to deal with issues than could well be left until they are back at work).
The Commission's consultation has to be seen as a positive chance to review legislation originally developed in the 1990s, bringing it up-to-date and making it relevant for today's working environment.
And this will certainly necessitate changes. For instance, the current WTD does little to protect employees from the growing preponderance for zero hours contracts, where people may be unable to organise childcare because they don't know when they'll be called into work, what hours they'll be working or indeed if they'll have any work - and all with the constant pressure of checking their messages and emails to see if there's a message from their employer advising if they have/don't have any work for that day or week.
The realisation of the need for a greater work/life balance is crucial; as this is where health and safety risks most manifest, notably stress which is on the increase. According to the latest HSE statistics, 39% of the total work related conditions were either stress, depression or anxiety - with 244,000 new cases reported in 2013/14.
These cases are higher in health and social care professions, and it will be organisations like the NHS and the emergency services making the most powerful case for change. They are pushing for legislation which allows them to provide modern, around the clock services to patients, while protecting healthcare staff from fatigue and undue stress.
The delivery of health services has sometimes been constrained by compliance and over-prescriptive working time rules - making it especially difficult to separate training time from working time.
The New Economics Foundation have put forward proposals for a 'normal' working week of 21 hours - down from 40 hours or more - with the option to work longer, or shorter hours, as required. Although not without controversy, it could help to address a number of interlinked problems: overwork, low well-being, entrenched inequalities and the lack of time to live sustainably.
There's little disagreement that the current WTD appears no longer fit for purpose; it's too inflexible and out-of-date. So, it can't be too unreasonable to suggest that the economy should now adapt to the needs of a modern society rather than vice versa?
Cedrec specialises in providing public and private sector organisations with help and advice in understanding, interpreting and complying with environmental and safety legislation. The company offers a range of specialist consultancy and subscriptions services.