This article was written by Kirsty-Anne McIntyre, a solicitor in the employment department at SA Law.
Britain has increasingly become a 24 hour society. Pubs and bars are now open into the early hours of the morning and recently there has been a call for the London underground to operate later into the night. We take for granted round-the-clock service stations which allow us to fill our cars with petrol and pick up a coffee at any time we choose. The advent of 24 hour supermarkets has provided hungry night owls the opportunity to pop out for snacks at any time. This is not to mention the health care and fire services whose 24/7 function is considered essential in modern society.
The increased hub of activity which now extends through the night is driving demand for people to work unsociable hours.
As well as the obvious impact on social and family life which comes with working through the night, there is a considerable amount of medical evidence which suggests that night workers may be subject to a number of specific health and safety risks. Their sleep patterns are likely to be disrupted and they may be particularly susceptible to certain health problems, including stress-related illnesses and cardiovascular and gastro-intestinal disorders. Furthermore, night workers are three times more likely to have an industrial accident and twice as likely to have a car accident on the way home from work.
It was these factors which put off the bosses of Moneypenny, a company based on Wrexham which provides a phone answering service, from expanding their service to accommodate calls from their clients out of hours.
Moneypenny hit the headlines recently with its solution for overcoming these concerns. The company decided to trial locating a pool of call centre staff in New Zealand to cover the out of hours calls. When staff turn off the phones at 8pm in Wrexham, these calls are answered by staff based in Auckland for the next twelve hours, until staff return to resume service in Wrexham at 8am the following morning. Staff in New Zealand work on a pattern of four days on and 4 days off, which allows them to take in the sights while living on the other side of the world. The trial appears to have been a resounding success, with staff enjoying the opportunity to experience living abroad and the company being able to provide a service manned by chirpy, wide-awake staff.
Obviously this solution is not appropriate for all companies; it does customers no good to have an open grocery store located on the other side of the world. So companies need to implement alternative measures to protect their staff.
There are special regulations, the Working Time Regulations 1998, which apply to night workers, limiting their shifts and requiring employers to offer them health assessments. These regulations apply to all staff, with some limited exceptions, from employees to freelancers to agency workers, who work at least 3 hours over the night period, usually classified as the period from 11pm to 6am.
Employers must offer workers a free health assessment before they start working at night and repeat it regularly after that. The purpose of the health assessment is to determine whether the night worker is fit to work at night. If the company does have concerns about a member of staff it should follow these up with a medical examination.
Aside from the regulatory bare essentials, there are some more practical measures which companies can implement to improve the morale and work environment for staff working unsociable hours. It is a good idea to reward staff for working antisocial hours. Companies are not legally required to do this however it can help with staff recruitment, retention and improve business productivity by perhaps paying an increased rate or giving them extra leave. Companies should show an interest in the work performed by shift workers and visit them every now and then on shift. Where possible, employees’ preferences should be taken into account as far as possible when organising shift work as they will be happier if they can have some say in how their schedule is arranged.