The issue of working late can be a sensitive one within many businesses, as the line between flexibility and unhealthy overtime becomes increasingly blurred.
Tina Chander, partner and head of the employment team at Wright Hassall, explores how you can find ‘the perfect balance’
Most people don’t mind staying late occasionally if there’s a vital piece of deadline-dependent work that still needs to be completed, and this is commonplace within many GP practices, especially as the colder months tend to create an increase in patients seeking urgent appointments.
However, when unpaid overtime is pushed to unreasonable lengths, and begins to have a negative impact on an individual’s personal time and sociable hours, it can have significant implications for not only the work-life balance of employees, but their relationship with the business.
The culture of overtime
Usually, we understand the term ‘overtime’ to mean staying behind past the contracted hours and working late into the evening. However, this isn’t always the case, as employees who work through their lunch breaks, or get to work much earlier than their colleagues, are also considered to be working overtime.
One of the biggest reasons for salaried staff working later hours is workplace culture, where people feel they cannot leave the office on time for fear of criticism.
It is important for employers to ensure their contracts give all staff clear guidance on what is expected with regard to their working hours – clear parameters will prevent any grey areas becoming more serious issues for employers.
Junior and senior staff
Understandably, senior GPs, who are on higher salaries, should expect to undertake some additional hours just to get the job done. The bigger issue comes when more junior members of staff are constantly working unpaid overtime by staying late, as they could end up working below the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
While employers do not have to pay for overtime, an employee’s average pay for the total hours worked must not fall below the NMW. Under the working time directive, UK workers cannot work more than an average of 48 hours a week unless they sign an opt-out.
It is important that all employment contracts address overtime and reflect your policy. It may be necessary to specify that staff will sometimes have to work unpaid overtime, but you must not ask them to work for more than a total of 48 hours a week for legal reasons unless, of course, the employee has opted out.
Your contract may also explain that staff can claim ‘time off in lieu’ (TOIL) for some overtime, such as working evenings or weekends, but it’s up to businesses to ensure their employment contracts are legal and reflect their own needs and expectations.
It is also important that practices which pay their employees for overtime hours continually review their contracts and policies, reflecting this in the amount employees receive as holiday pay.
Finding the perfect balance
While overtime has become an accepted part of modern business, with employees favouring increased flexibility over rigid and structured days, there still needs to be a fair balance between normal and excessive working.
Most GPs will accept that busier periods require staying later so that patients are seen but, when this overtime consumes entire evenings, or limits time with friends and family, then it can quickly become a much more serious issue.
For businesses, it is crucial that policies and contracts are routinely reviewed and updated to allow for overtime and to make clear distinctions between what additional time will be covered and what won’t be.
If you are unsure whether your business has the appropriate measures in place it is advisable to speak to a legal professional experienced in employment matters for guidance on handling overtime-related issues.