Employment law: Time up for the opt-out clause

The EU is pondering ending the opt-out clause for the Working Time Regulations. Robert Gray assesses the impact this might have on PR.

Employment law: Time up for the opt-out clause
Employment law: Time up for the opt-out clause

Anyone working in the PR industry knows it's not a nine-to-five career, so it fits in well with the UK's culture of long working hours.

European Labour Force Survey statistics show that, while full-time workers in Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands work about 38 hours a week, and the Germans a fraction over 40, in the UK the average is 44. Moreover, about four million workers - 16 per cent of the workforce - habitually work more than 48 hours a week.

This appetite for long hours has brought the UK into conflict with the European Commission. In its Working Time Directive of 23 November 1993, the commission stipulated that workers should work no more than an average of 48 hours a week. The few exceptions included trainee doctors and those working in transport industries.

Taking the view that the directive would impose a burden on small businesses, the UK secured individual opt-outs for its own working time regulations, whereby employees could agree with their employers that the 48-hour ceiling did not personally apply to them. Eleven years on, the commission is re-examining the directive and considering the removal of the individual opt-out provision.

'The opt-out is of considerable importance to the UK because its use is widespread,' says Chris Osman, partner in employment law at Clifford Chance. 'The commission might leave well alone, but you never can tell.'

Implications of no opt-out

Given that the individual opt-out is straightforward to implement, the Working Time Regulations have so far had little effect on working hours.

This failure might harden the EU's resolve, but what are the implications if it does? For many PR jobs, long hours are the norm. Agencies need to win and service business and can be fearful of appearing to clients as though they are not giving their all. In-house press offices need to respond to media calls at any time.

Jackie Cooper Public Relations founding partner Robert Phillips acknowledges that the industry suffers from long hours and extended schedules and believes a tighter and more focused, working week might do the industry good.

'Few thrive on late-nights or early mornings,' he says. 'A 48-hour cap might re-kindle its creative and strategic edge.'

Phillips abhors the 'stay late and you'll progress' culture. 'We are fierce opponents of that here. We champion smarter working,' he adds.

'No one has ever been promoted here because they stayed late. Focused hours should encourage smarter working, which should, in turn, lead to more productive output. It does not take too long to have one great idea and make that one, killer call to sell it to the media.'

Business lunches and evening functions also extend the working day. Osman points out that if being in a restaurant with a client is part of the client relationship it would be counted as working time. 'There are grey areas as to when being on call is working,' he says.

Nicole Lander, head of corporate affairs at Woolworths, does not think the smooth operation of such a busy in-house private sector PR department relies on long hours, but on flexibility of staff. Although the team needs to be operational at all times, that doesn't mean everyone needs to be at their desks for 24 hours a day. Its current rota system is likely to stay, says Lander, even if the law changes.

The Food Standards Agency's comms team also has a rotation system in place. Director of comms Neil Martinson says being on call goes with the territory, and that it's difficult to see how this can be avoided.

'News is now a 24-hour affair, and we have people working incredibly long days,' he says. 'Of course there's a danger that they could burn out or make mistakes. If people are pushed too hard for a number of days, we try to change the rota.'

Lander agrees that during busier times - around launches for example - the team might need to put in more than 48 hours a week. And making time for creative thinking is essential. 'Brainstorming sessions, discussions and general thinking time are a vital part of the working day,' she says.

'I believe they should count towards a 48-hour week. But I understand that family life comes first.'

Many staff remain happy to put the hours in, but were the employer/employee relationship to turn nasty, a rigid, 48-hour limit could make life harder for employers. 'You can foresee someone bringing a workplace stress claim, then adding another claim that the employer had insisted on them working longer than 48 hours a week,' says Norton Rose partner, employment, Peter Talibart.

The UK's workers may well put in more hours than their European counterparts, but even if the opt-out clause is taken away, the PR industry will survive.

After all, says Lander, the essential ingredients that make up a good PR don't include long hours - they're flair, commitment and enthusiasm.

MARTINSON'S TYPICAL DAY

Neil Martinson, director of comms, Food Standards Agency

08.30: Arrive at the office

08.50: Review papers and look at the wires.Review emails. Talk to

personal assistant about meetings

10.00: Daily news meeting attended by head of each team - publicity and

advertising, public affairs, press, web - chairman's speechwriter, news

manager and personal assistant

10.30: Final review draft of chairman's speech for engagement this

afternoon

10.45: Ad agency review of creatives and research for new campaign

11.30: Meet chairman, deputy chair and chief executive for media

planning and review

12.00: Review budget, sign off monthly spend

12.20: Catch up on calls and incoming emails

13.00: Lunch with journalist

14.15: Meet chief executive

14.45: UK conference call on food safety

15.10: Check website. Look at statistics on traffic. Liaise with PA

about tomorrow's diary

15.30: Brief research agency for work on consumer perceptions of recent

news item

16.00: Catch up with news manager on breaking news from Europe; discuss

handling. Review long-lead feature release

16.15: Return calls/emails, review papers

17.00: Catch-up meeting with project team for Promotion of Foods to

Children public debate

18.30-20.30: Accompany chairman to event at the Royal Society

LANDER'S TYPICAL DAY

Nicole Lander, head of corporate affairs, Woolworths

07.30: Arrive at office. Read press cuttings and emails, scan newspapers

08.30: News conference with team to set media agenda for the week,

review weekend press cuttings, review marketing activity

09.30: Meeting with chief executive for update on business issues

10.30: Second team meeting to review current progress

11.00: Meeting with design agency to brief on annual report

11.45: Mentoring session for Woolworths employee who wants to join PR

team

12.30 - 14.30: Lunch with City journalist

14.30: Brainstorm with team for Christmas press show in July

15.30: Performance review with global brand licensing manager

17.00: Telephone conference call with Woolworths Group web designers

17.45: Leave office for charity function at House of Commons

21.30 - 22.00: Arrive home

PHILLIPS'S TYPICAL DAY

05.30: First dose of news from BBC Radio Five Live, followed by Teletext

and BBC Breakfast News. Reply to overnight emails

06.45: Leave home - usually by bicycle - but by car if it's pouring with

rain and/or I have more calls to make

07.00: Start in office - 90 minutes to two hours of clear

writing/thinking time (used for writing strategy documents, creative

concepts, new business presentations)

09.00: Review all papers and online summaries to see what opportunities

are there

09.30-18.30: Most of day is taken up with internal and external meetings

- mostly strategic and creative sessions. Spend a lot of time with

clients. Review programmes, offer strategic advice and fresh creative

ideas. Always try to conclude meetings with clear actions that will move

the campaign on

Lunch: On the move. I'm not a big luvvie luncher. Do that once every

couple of weeks

18.30: Return to desk to clear all emails

20.00: Home. I do working dinners once or twice a week, when I'm home by

midnight. But Tuesday/Wednesday nights are for Man U in the Champion's

League. Friday's for family

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