How will the Working Time Directive affect my business?

I’ve recently read that the EU Parliament has voted to phase out Britain’s opt-out of the Working Time Directive to prevent people from working more than 48 hours a week. If adopted, how will this affect my IT support business?

A. Jim Rogers of Grant Thornton writes:

Although the EU Parliament has voted to abolish the UK's opt-out of the Working Time Directive, there's no need to panic just yet. Any move would be phased in over a three-year period, and encouragingly, Tony Blair has stated that he strongly opposes any plans to abolish the opt-out, calling them “wrong” and “completely misguided”, adding that we “cannot afford to give up our flexibility”. This appears to be as good an indication as any that he plans to fight the corner of UK business.

Currently, as the legislation stands, if your employees are working more than (an average of) 48 hours a week, they need to sign an opt-out agreement (current best practice is to have this separate to the employment contract). The word ‘average' is important as the regulation restricts working more than, on average, 48 hours a week over 17 weeks. Taking into account bank holidays and annual leave, this is surprisingly hard to breach. Nevertheless, it should be recognised that being ‘on call' is counted within the 48-hour limit, and in the IT support industry you operate in, some of your staff may breach this limit.

If, over the next few months, it begins to look like the UK will follow the EU's Directive, you will have to adjust your business strategy accordingly. In theory, if we were to adopt the Working Time Directive without the opt-out, businesses would have to take on more staff or reduce their staff work load as breaching the limit would make them liable for prosecution. With many businesses operating on the smallest of margins, neither of these options appears very palatable.

However, part of the challenge of managing a business is being able to react to changing legislation with as little negative impact to the business as possible. It will be important to understand your competition; try to envisage how they may be affected and how they may react.

In planning your strategy you will need to ensure you manage costs to maintain a competitive advantage, depending on how many hours over the 48-hour limit your employees are working. It may be possible for you to organise their on-call rota in such a way that they fall within the ‘average'.

Finally, you will have to consider how this will affect your employees and the best way to communicate any necessary changes to them, as well as reasons for the changes.


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