When an 8 hour day becomes…all day
News of Hector Sants taking time out from Barclays this week reminded the City of the risk of burnout from a long hours culture. But it’s not just City bankers and lawyers who burn the midnight oil. Apparently even the cast of Eastenders are expected to work extremely long hours in what one actor has been reported as describing as a “machine”. Whilst a few long days in the office might be unavoidable from time to time, the pressure of consistently working around the clock takes its toll on most of us.
The Working Time Regulations 1998 restrict the average working week to 48 hours. Employers are expected to ensure this time limit is complied with and failure to do so could mean they are liable to an unlimited fine. As good as this might sound, employers can get around this by requiring their employees to agree to “opt out” of this protection. Although employers are not allowed to pressurise workers into signing these agreements or victimise them for failing to do so, the reality is that some working environments require longer hours to be worked in order for the job requirements to be met.
But, sometimes it is just not possible to respond to 100 emails a day, attend meetings at the drop of a hat, socialise with clients and prepare documents that were needed yesterday. Oh, and did I mention that urgent piece of work to be completed by 9am tomorrow that landed on your desk at 6pm when you had just started to think about winding down…?
One responsibility that cannot be opted out of is your employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of its employees. If working excessively long hours is harming or is likely to harm your health, then your employer may be in breach of this key duty. However, before your employer would be criticised, it needs to be pretty obvious that you could suffer injury as a result of stress, and what they could and should do about it. For example, if you tell your employer that you are too stressed out to work such long hours and they then do nothing, it would be reasonably foreseeable that you could end up being signed off work with work-related stress.
If you are becoming unwell as a result of being overworked, it is important to raise this at an early stage before things become too unbearable and you find yourself unable to cope. You may be surprised to find that your employer is understanding and assists you to manage your workload. Unfortunately though, some managers do fail genuinely to engage with cries for help and that can understandably lead to you feeling even worse. If that happens, it may be worth seeking out legal advice to guide you through your options and take the burden of managing the process alone. You need to look out for yourself.
Put it this way – it’s not about how Albert Square would manage if Phil Mitchell had to take sick leave from the stress of being overworked. The right question to ask is what might happen to Phil’s health and wellbeing if he carried on working without taking that time out?