Debate: Working time regulations

That this meeting of RCN Congress asks Council to challenge vigorously employers who fail in their duty to comply with working time regulations.

Nurses and health care assistants frequently work through their rest breaks, and, worryingly, this appears to be becoming an accepted norm within the profession. However, recently there has been a case where a nurse was fined and banned from driving following a car accident on her way home from a night shift in a Scottish hospital. In her defence, her lawyer reported that she had been unable to take her breaks during the 7pm-7.30am shift. The paramedic crew attending the scene stated that her blood sugar was extremely low. This was due to the fact that the nurse had not been able to take any breaks, so no food or fluid were taken by the nurse throughout her shift. The NMC must now be informed of this which could have a potentially devastating effect upon her career.

Many employers take no responsibility for their failure in providing adequate breaks during long shifts and nurses and health care assistants are subject to the same laws as anyone whilst driving so must take responsibility for their safety and that of other road users. In this increasingly pressured environment, nurses and health care assistants are faced with staffing shortages, increased workloads and the personal desire to deliver high quality care to all their patients. Of course there may be occasions where there are emergencies or lack of cover but these should be the exception rather than the rule. It is however incumbent upon employers to ensure that employees are able to take adequate rest breaks, this is enshrined in law. Breaks are arguably even more important during night shifts, which tend to be in excess of 12 hours.

In Scotland’s largest health board – NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde – the RCN, through its lead steward has undertaken significant work in monitoring compliance with the European Union Working Time Directive (EUWTD). This has led to a reduction in breaches and changed the health board’s monitoring process to increase compliance.

The Working Time Regulations (WTR) apply to Wales. Service pressures which are prevalent across the UK are also challenging within Wales. Some employers have had difficulty adhering to the WTR and therefore the Nurse Staffing Levels Act will be beneficial to members of the RCN within Wales.

According to the most recent health and social care (HSC) staff survey, almost three-quarters (71%) of nurses working in the HSC in Northern Ireland work beyond their contracted hours each week. More than half (59%) of all HSC-employed nurses regularly work an additional one to five hours unpaid each week. Some 13% regularly work between six and 10 hours unpaid each week, whilst 5% regularly work more than 10 hours unpaid each week.

We call on Council to vigorously challenge employers who fail to ensure adequate breaks are taken by nursing staff. Under new plans, Trusts will be fined when junior doctors miss their meal break on 25% of occasions. What’s good for the doctors is good for the nursing staff and ultimately for the patients we care for.

Denise McLaughlin asked delegates, “is the wellbeing of those delivering care, less important than the wellbeing of our patients”, as she proposed this resolution. An RCN survey highlighted the numbers of nursing staff who regularly work extra hours and aren’t able to take their breaks. This is in contravention of the working time regulations and something that employers should be accountable for ensuring doesn’t happen.

Seconding this resolution, Mike Travis, Liverpool and Knowsley said: “this not just about breaks, but is also about how we are rostered” as staff are being asked to work mixtures of shift patterns in a working week. He specifically spoke about the independent sector community staff who have to work long hours as they only get paid during the time they are delivering care, not while traveling between clients.

Focusing on Brexit, Martin MacGregor, Tayside Branch was concerned that the rights of members will be “watered down or repealed” by the forthcoming process.

Ensuring that we don’t make this about “us and them against managers” and to enable them to support staff, Claire Picton, NW London Outer Branch said, we need to look after ourselves and use incident reporting tools” to give managers the valuable data about what is happening in their workplace.

Helen O’Boyle, North London Central Inner Branch, supported the resolution, but highlighted that she chooses to work a mix of shift patterns as it enables her to work where she wants to, and asked delegates to remember that it’s a “matter of choice”.

As a student nurse, Lyndsey Firth also has to work as a bank HCA to support her family, meaning between her placements and bank work she works 60 hours a week. She urged Congress to extend the resolution to students to ensure they are properly rested so “the nurses of the future are safe in practice”.

Result: passed


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17 May 2017 11:20 - 12:00

Location To Be Confirmed


Resolution, submitted by the RCN UK Safety Reps committee

Page last updated - 04/08/2020