Fresh fuel has been poured on the fire surrounding the UK's opt-out from the European Working Time Directive with the release of a new survey suggesting that while the majority of workers are opposed to being restricted to a 48-hour week, the degree of compulsion to accept the opt-out is much higher than employers are prepared to admit.
A survey of 750 people by the Charted Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has found that the number of employees saying that there is an element of employer compulsion to them working over 48 hours a week has risen by almost 200 per cent over the past five years.
Almost three-quarters of said they work over 48 hours most weeks with seven out of ten said it was either ‘partly’ or ‘totally’ their choice to work long hours.
Only a third (35 per cent) employees supported the end of the UK’s opt-out, with two-thirds per cent feeling the EU shouldn’t limit the number of hours they work.
Senior managers and professionals, who are those most likely to be able to make informed choices about their hours, are most likely to work beyond the 48-hour limit.
While nearly half of those surveyed felt that their business 'encouraged' the working of long hours, one in three claimed that there was an element of compulsion, up from just over one in ten in 1998. More than a third of those questioned (37 per cent) also said that they signed the opt-out as part of their employment contract.
The figure give significant weight to union claims that abuse of the opt-out is more widespread than employers admit and fly in the face of the CIPD's own claim that the survey "finds scant evidence of any employer abuse of the opt-out clause".
The survey also illustrates the potentially damaging effects on employee welfare and corporate productivity of long hours working. One in ten employees report damaging physical effects and more than one in seven effects on their mental health.
More significantly, more than a third of staff report that working long hours negatively affects their performance, with a significant proportion believing that they could be just as effective and productive if they cut their working hours.
More than four out of ten said that they could maintain the same level of productivity while cutting back the number of hours worked each week. The TUC, which has consistently urged the government to end the UK’s opt-out, was quick to jump on the findings as a ‘shot in the foot’ for the pro-opt-out CIPD.
"The small print of the survey shows that things are far from OK; the survey is a real shot in the foot. The evidence for employer abuse of the opt-out is strong and it is the reason it should be removed," said Paul Sellars of the TUC.
But the report's author, Gerwyn Davies, was adamant that blanket legislation was not the answer.
"The issue of long hours working is complex, deep-seated and ingrained in the culture of organisations and cannot be addressed by a uniform ban," he insisted.
"The rise in compulsion needs to be tackled but removing the opt-out is not the way. We need to get employers sitting down with staff and offering flexible working across the board. Removing the opt-out is just removing freedom of choice," he said.
The CIPD's Assistant Director-General, Duncan Brown, added that the debate over the working time regulations needs to be considered in the broader context of how people are managed and motivated at work.
"Rather than having inflexible uniform limits, employers need to be looking at more varied, creative, motivating and effective ways of increasing performance and productivity than simply increasing the workload and working hours of their staff," Brown said.
"Related CIPD research demonstrates that giving employees a high level of choice and involvement over how and how long they work and introducing a wider variety of more flexible working options can realise substantial gains in levels of employee commitment and corporate productivity. Yet in this study fewer than half of employees felt that they had access to flexible working options."
But TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, called the survey "a spectacular own goal."
"Their figures back TUC research showing high levels of coercion into long hours," he said, "and indeed the CIPD shows that coercion has tripled in the last five years.
"Half say that long hours affect their relationship with their partner. One in six say their mental health has been affected, and one in ten their physical health. One in three say that long hours make them too tired to work properly, and almost half say they could get just as much done in a shorter time.
"The only way to begin to cut through Britain’s long hours culture is to end the opt-out," Barbour insisted.