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24-hour working

Updated Thursday 23rd March 2006

We consider what’s driving our long hours culture, and its impact on our health, in this article based on OU course material.

24-hour working Copyrighted image Icon Copyright:

Some jobs have always required unsociable hours. Doctors, for instance, have always suffered from around-the-clock demands. But now more and more of us are working evenings and weekends. This is partly driven by a move towards customer friendly opening hours.

Business around the clock
First Direct was one of the first 24/7 financial services. While other banks were concentrating on ways to cut costs within their branches, HSBC (then still Midland Bank) began to envision an entirely new type of business. The idea was to offer a service that would be more in touch with the lifestyles of their customers. Operating from one centre, this new bank would offer a no-frills service, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

HSBC created a development team that was independent and not constrained by the culture of the parent company. Members were recruited for their skills in innovation, creativity, project management and decisive action. The idea was to use the UK telephone system and human operators instead of machines. Payments, savings and lending services would be delivered by phone, and the existing HSBC cash machines used for dispensing cash and receiving deposits.

First Direct broke even five years after launch. Although First Direct was a wholly owned subsidiary of HSBC, it wanted to distance itself from the parent company. The bank wanted to create a completely new brand concept that placed innovation and customer service processes at the centre of the business.
At the heart of the system was the call centre where customers could call at any time of the day or night and speak to a banking representative. This person could access account information and carry out transactions on the customer’s behalf. The management team understood the importance of creating a corporate culture and identified 5 core values they wanted to instil in their workforce:

  • responsiveness
  • openness
  • right first time
  • respect
  • contribution

They added Kaizen (continuous improvement) later. These values were designed to make the employees feel special and be reflected in their customer relationships.

After seven years, if they had been a ‘traditional’ bank, their customer base would have required 200 branches, and over 4,000 staff to service their needs. In contrast, the new branchless system handled the customer transactions with 2,400 employees, reducing staffing costs by half of a retail-based bank. In only seven years First Direct had made a significant impact on the banking industry.

Stress from long hours
Does the modern 24/7 work ethic create stress amongst workers? Pressures at work are a well-known source of stress if these are not perceived as being under the control of the workers themselves. Research suggests that work stress is a consequence of an imbalance between efforts and rewards. If the individual considers that he or she has received inadequate reward for the effort or skills they have contributed to their job, they are likely to experience emotional distress and possible adverse health effects.
Evidence of both job strain and imbalance was found in the now famous study of Whitehall civil servants. In a five-year study which tracked over 10,000 civil servants:

  • low decision latitude
  • low work/social support
  • effort–reward imbalance

were all associated with poorer physical health in both men and women

Organisational factors that may impact on stress include the organisational structure and climate, and its leadership and management style. More personal factors include:

  • job security
  • social influences at work
  • over- and under-promotion
  • time pressures
  • role conflict
  • ambiguity

The impact of these various factors is illustrated in the Williams Report, a review of stress in a number of health service trusts throughout England and Wales. Hospitals have, of course, been 24/7 operations for many years. The problem of ill health in NHS workers has been recognised for some time. Much higher sickness absence rates are reported for NHS staff compared to similar staff in other occupations. One can see that, given the kind of work nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers carry out, they might be expected to suffer more from both physical and psychological health problems.

The Williams Report highlighted this in its review of working conditions, and described aspects of the work which might lead to poor health. Organisational changes within the NHS may also have contributed to the stressful nature of the job. Doctors and nurses are often ‘on call’ for long hours via pagers and other electronic systems. The Williams Report cited the following factors:

  • longer hours
  • increased workload
  • increased violence
  • threats from patients
  • more complaints

These were thought to contribute to ill health and, in turn, undermine both the quality and quantity of work and patient care.

The law and 24 hour working
The business case for 24 hour working is well known but what support is the law providing for those who are pioneering new ways of working? How is the law changing to support working patterns that meet the needs of both business and workers?

There is a long established common law obligation on an employer to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. This obligation has been built on by statutory regulations which recognise that protection is needed:

  • To protect the health and safety of workers
  • To avoid a culture of long hours and bad working practices and the consequent impact on workers health
  • To attract and retain workers and increase competitiveness
  • As part of the government’s social policy

Protection now exists in the form of minimum standards for working hours, holidays and rest breaks.

The Working Time Regulations were passed as a result of Directive 93/104/EC. This aimed to protect health and safety of workers and recognised that it was advisable to have limits on the amount of time they spend at work. Workers expected to work long and unsociable hours were provided with some protection. Employers are now required to take all reasonable steps to ensure that workers do not work more than an average of 48 hours a week over a 17 week period.
In addition an employee is now guaranteed a minimum of four weeks annual leave in any one year. Bank and public holidays are not automatic entitlements and can be considered as part of the four weeks annual leave.

Rest periods are also regarded as an important factor in working life and the following entitlements to rest periods now exist:

  • at least 11 consecutive hours in each 24 hour period during which they work for an employer
  • an uninterrupted rest period of not less than 24 hours in each seven day period
  • a minimum uninterrupted break period of 20 minutes for every 6 hours worked

Employers must also take reasonable steps to ensure that night workers do not exceed an average of eight hours a night over a 17 week period.

An employer who fails to take reasonable steps to comply with the legislation on working hours and rest breaks may be fined. An employee may also make a claim to an employment tribunal where they have been denied an entitlement. Any claim by an employee must be brought in within 3 months. If the employee has been dismissed they can apply for compensation and a declaration. Any dismissal is regarded as automatically unfair.

However, as with all things, the are exceptions to the Working Time Regulations. These include:

  • where an individual has opted out of the weekly limit
  • transport workers and those who work at sea
  • those involved in civil protection services
  • domestic staff (but they are entitled to holidays and rest breaks)
  • special case exemptions, for example, the travelling salesman
  • workers involved in security and surveillance services
  • where there is a foreseeable surge of activity, for example increase in the volume of mail in December
  • force majeure – in the event of genuine emergencies and other foreseen circumstances

It was recognised that staff feel stressed by the ambiguous expectations about how available they should be given that new technology enables them to work 24 hours a day and by the

  • Demands of their jobs
  • A long hours working culture
  • Need to be seen to be performing

The law has put a framework of protection in place but it allows opt out by workers. To be made more effective a change in business culture itself is needed.


About this article

This article is based on extracts taken from the Open University courses, Marketing in a complex world, Working for health and Employment Law and Practice.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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