The NHS European Office is working with employers in the NHS and relevant organisations to make a case for changing the Working Time Directive (WTD). We are seizing all available opportunities to tell European decision-makers how the WTD has affected the health service and to suggest how the rules should be changed in the future.
Changing the working time directive
On 26 April, the European Commission issued its long-awaited guidance document interpreting all the legislation and case law to date on the Working Time Directive.
The guidance does not propose legislative changes but aims to clarify grey areas and provide help with correct implementation for governments, employers and workers.
The European Office is scrutinising the guidance to see what it means for NHS staff and whether it impacts upon current working arrangements, for example shift work and on call duty.
Background to the guidance
The European Commission had previously indicated its wish to take a broader approach to the entire issue of work-life balance, in particular enabling employees with dependents to combine their working lives and family responsibilities more easily.
As part of this broader approach, the Commission conducted a public consultation on how the WTD should be changed and used the responses to this public consultation to inform its guidance document.
Responding to the public consultation
The NHS European Office responded to the consultation on behalf of NHS Employers. In the response, the European Office highlighted that:
- The directive should be based on the fundamental principle of ensuring workers are safe and fit to work, rather than trying to prescribe detailed rules at European level to cover every possible eventuality.
- Detailed rules on things such as timing of rest should be decided at national level, to fit in with the way services and training are organised differently in different member states, whilst respecting staff health and safety.
- Given the requirement to provide around the clock care to patients, whilst protecting healthcare staff from fatigue, the current rules are unsatisfactory and not fit for purpose.
- The current rules have a negative impact on running costs, with some hospitals having to employ additional workers to cover shift patterns.
- Shorter working hours overall and compensatory rest periods mean that doctors in training get less time with supervisors and less experience of performing clinical procedures.
- Quality of patient care can also suffer because of less continuity of care and more frequent handovers.
- There should be greater flexibility in deciding the timing of compensatory rest and this should be done at national level; the important consideration should be whether or not the healthcare worker is fit to work, both for their own safety and of others.
- Member states should be able to decide at national level by legislation or collective bargaining how inactive on-call time should be treated (where the healthcare worker is on call, but actually resting). Our view is that any inactive on-call time should count as rest and that time spent on standby – where the employee is not working, should also count as rest.
- The reference period (length of time used to calculate the average weekly hours) should be set at national level.
- The opt-out clause should be maintained (limit on number of hours per week to be worked).
Download and read the full response from the NHS European Office.