Although many accountants will be reluctant to admit being fans of the European working time directive, many will have secretly cheered when it finally came into effect in the UK last month.
Britain has the longest working hours in Europe, and the competitive client-driven culture of the accountancy sector means many staff find themselves working far longer than a standard eight-hour day. But accountants exhausted by relentless dawn starts and late evenings in the office should think again if they expect the new working time rules to reverse the long-hours culture of many British workplaces.
Arthur Andersen has already asked its employees to waive their right to protection from excessive overtime under the rules; a growing number of other accounting firms and businesses look set to follow suit.
The working time rules became part of UK health and safety legislation on 1 October and specify a maximum average working week of 48 hours, averaged over 17 weeks. They also guarantee workers minimum rest breaks and holidays.
Andersens has taken advantage of a get-out clause allowing individual workers to opt out of the 48-hour maximum. Employees must agree to this in writing, and Andersens has asked all its 60,000 UK staff to do so.
BDO Stoy Hayward said last week it was considering following Andersens’ example, while PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Grant Thornton, Moore Stephens and Neville Russell all either refused to rule out the possibility or declined to comment. Only Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche categorically stated they were not considering a blanket request to all staff asking them to opt out.
The introduction of the rules is a headache for human resources managers.
They need to balance the statutory requirement to follow the regulations with the need to make sure staff are always able to provide rapid-response client service in a competitive marketplace.
Judith Hardy, Andersens’ UK HR director, said this is what led to the firm’s decision to ask its staff to opt out of the 48-hour maximum. ‘We do not wish to encourage excessive overtime and believe, much of the time, client service requirements can be met without exceeding the 48-hour average limit. However, we recognise this will not always be the case.’
She added: ‘We will meet in full requirements of employment legislation but do not believe the EU directive on working time is the best vehicle to deliver the dual objective of client service and more flexible working.’ She emphasised there was no compulsion and that staff who refused to sign would not be discriminated against.
But in the competitive culture of many firms, staff may feel reluctant to refuse a request to sign an opt-out. One accountant who recently left a Group A firm after a five-year auditing stint said: ‘For a lot of people, long hours are a fact of life in accountancy firms. If you just work nine to five you don’t get anywhere.’ He said the working directive would definitely affect auditors, particularly those on frequent ‘away jobs’ with tight time constraints.
However, not all accountancy firms feel a blanket opt-out request is the right way to deal with the new rules. Deloittes HR manager Steve James, said: ‘We don’t feel an opt-out of health and safety legislation is appropriate.’
Geoff Pye, head of HR operations at E&Y, said: ‘Our general approach is to say, “obviously we need to put our clients first, and on occasions this does involve working long hours”. However, we believe for the vast majority the working hours in the regulations will not be exceeded.’ Pye added: ‘There is an onus on the individual to say they’re at risk. But we have made it clear to managers and partners they need to ensure people aren’t working excessive hours.
‘This is common sense. It is in no-one’s interest to run themselves into the ground. The individual suffers, the firm suffers and the client suffers.’
Paul Nicholls, a lawyer specialising in employment law with Dibb Lupton Alsop, said getting staff to sign an opt-out agreement from the regulations was a sensible and increasingly popular approach.
‘The rules have been brought in at short notice and place a large administrative burden on employers in terms of record keeping,’ he said. Nicholls added he did not think accountancy firms would have many problems keeping within the rules, as they qualified for a special exception allowing them to average the 48-hour maximum week over 26 weeks rather than the standard 17.
The holidays given by many firms, he said, would mean few staff would exceed a 48-hour average over this length of time.
But employers may not be able to use the opt-out clause indefinitely as the EU has long-term plans to review the working-time rules with a view to removing it. Many tired British accountants may then have more reason to quietly cheer at the directive.
WORKING TIME DIRECTIVE ENTITLEMENTS
– An average maximum 48-hour week;
– Three weeks’ paid holiday a year, rising to four next year;
– a day’s rest a week;
– in-work rest breaks; and
– a limit of an average 8 hours’ work in 24 for night workers.
But there are numerous exemptions and opt-outs available to businesses and employees.
The rules also impose a significant compliance burden on businesses.
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