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Britain’s overtime culture putting lives at risk

A new survey of British workers has exposed how the UK’s overtime culture is putting drivers at risk at the wheel, owing to poor sleep, pressure to respond quickly and stress and distraction.

The research1 by business insurer NFU Mutual found that more than a third of people who work full or part time in the UK are expected to work outside of their contracted hours (35%).

It also found that 30% are expected to respond to calls and emails out of hours, and sometimes slog away late into the night (46%).

Nearly one in ten who also drive for work have actually fallen asleep or nearly fallen asleep at the wheel as a direct result of work pressure (8%), while a quarter have driven tired specifically due to out-of-hours work demands.

Some even combine the two and work while driving – 16% admitted to being on a work call or conference call while driving and one in twenty people (5%) have actually responded to work emails while at the wheel.

More than a quarter of all UK road traffic incidents involve someone who is driving as part of their work, according the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)2. Recent figures from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics arm, also showed Britons work more hours than anyone else in Europe – an average of 42 hours a week3.

Rebecca Richards, Business Insurance Specialist at insurer NFU Mutual, said: “Brits work longer hours than any other European country. If businesses focus on increasing productivity and reducing costs, staff could feel the need to put extra hours in to climb the ladder or even keep their job. This can cause fatigue which is one of the biggest killers on UK roads.”4

“In a digital world, bosses should be aware that employees might also feel pressure to respond immediately – it’s alarming that some people even respond to emails while driving. Motorists should always follow the law and park up in a safe, legal place if making a call, using hands-free technology. Companies can help look after their staff on the road by making sure their culture is distraction-free, excusing them from calls if they are travelling.”

Rebecca also explained how 28% of workers who drive had been asked by bosses to get to a location at the last minute. For 27%, work pressures have directly caused them stress and distraction behind the wheel.

While specific regulations exist for those driving LGVs and passenger-carrying vehicles, some core principles extend from these to also include smaller commercial vehicles, company cars or even personal vehicles that are used on business.

“If one of your employees is killed while driving for work and the Police investigation uncovers evidence that ‘gross breach of a relevant duty of care’ has occurred through management failure, both the organisation and relevant directors or other senior management could be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007”, said Rebecca. “Imagine the situation where an employee causes a crash while driving for work and it is found that they were making a business phone call at the time. If the investigation uncovered a culture where staff are expected to make and receive calls while on the road, and that senior management are aware of the practice, this could constitute a ‘gross breach’.”

One anonymous company had a stark wakeup call when a high-performing young employee suffered a near-fatal crash. She fell asleep at the wheel during a 280 mile-round trip to a presentation after working through the night. The impact didn’t even wake her.

This sent shockwaves through the company and cultural change began immediately. An outright ban on emails being sent out of hours without management authorisation was set in place, telematics were brought in to monitor employee driving behaviours, and work-life balance was established to keep staff safe and protected.

In the research by NFU Mutual, only 38% of respondents agreed that their employer has a suitable culture to help workers drive safely.

Rebecca concluded: “Positive workplaces mean more engaged and productive employees. Companies which introduce safe driving policies and encourage a culture where employees can speak up about workloads, might just save a life.”

Advice for employers to improve culture and driver safety

Any health and safety policy that truly lives and breathes within the day-to-day of company life is likely to be more effective in reducing risk both to employees and the public.

The HSE suggests asking yourself:

  1. When was your road safety/ driving at work policy last reviewed?
  2. How confident are you that the behaviours required by the policy are adhered to?
  3. Do the workload expectations actively promote these behaviours, or do other business pressures subtly undermine them?
  4. When was the last time that the conversation on staying safe on the roads was raised in your division?

In the event of an incident, where it can be evidenced that effective health and safety procedures are in place, this can be looked on favourably.

By contrast, where the investigation finds that the policy does little more than gather dust, or where business decisions such as cost-cutting (e.g. staff reduction leading to unmanageable workloads) contributed to the incident, this is likely to have a negative impact on sentencing.

  1. Seemingly small changes can make a big difference:
  2. If you phone one of your team and hear they are on the road, ask them to call back when they’ve arrived at their destination and quickly end the call.
  3. Review your schedule of meetings requiring field teams to travel: are they all necessary? Can technology or alternative communication methods help?
  4. Take time to review the expectations on your team, and the impact they may be having on their time and wellbeing in a holistic sense.

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