Long Working Hours in Offices & OHS Law

This article focuses on long working hours in office, remote environments and is based on the applicable law in Victoria, Australia.

The safety and wellbeing of office and remote workers can be overlooked by employers due to the presence of ‘invisible’ hazards. Long working hours is a significant psychosocial hazard affecting workers in various industries.

What are Long Working Hours?

There is currently no definition of ‘long working hours’ in the context of Occupational Health & Safety law in Victoria. It can be argued any hours in excess of 8 hours a day and 38 hours in a week can be considered ‘long working hours’. In determining long working hours, consideration should be given to the employee’s contractual hours and ordinary hours of work.

Nature of the Risk

Long working hours can pose a risk to the individual’s physical and mental health.

Studies have confirmed that long working hours can cause a number of health effects, which include, stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic fatigue, depression, stress, anxiety and poor physical health. The World Health Organization has estimated long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016.

The study concluded that working 55 hours or more per week has a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

There can also be indirect risks which may arise from long working hours. Some common risks may include:

  • An increase in risk of serious injury or death during travel to and from work
  • An increase in risk of serious injury or death from slips/trips/falls
  • An increase in risk of serious injury from manual handling

The Office Environment

Traditionally the risks associated with long working hours are often incorrectly assumed to be relevant strictly to industrial environments which involve the operation of plant, equipment and heavy vehicles. Long working hours is a significant hazard in office and remote environments due to the nature of working conditions.

In office and remote working environments, the end of working hours is generally not enforced. There are few employers who force their employees to stop work at the conclusion of the contractual work hours or force their employees to leave the office. The actual closure of the day’s work is arguably determined by the employees. The closure time can be influenced by increasing workloads, job demands, job insecurity, performance standards, performance pressures, peer pressure and career ambitions.

There are also generally no financial implications for an employer upon a salaried employee working longer hours. This is distinct from industrial environments which have forced closure times with financial implications for the employer for any additional hours of work. The closure time is enforced by the employer in industrial environments.

The office and remote environment can therefore encourage longer working hours, placing the health of employees at risk.

Employer’s Duties

Currently, pursuant to section 21 of the Occupational Health & Safety Act 2004 (Vic) (‘OHSA’) employers must so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. Section 5 of the OHSA defines health to include psychological health.

When determining reasonably practicable, consideration is given to the factors stated in section 20 of the OHSA.

It is important to note that the duty under section 21 of the OHSA is risk based and arises irrespective of whether harm is caused. If the risk exists in the workplace, the duty will exist. The penalty for a contravention under section 21 of the OHSA is 1800 penalty units for a natural person and 9000 penalty units for a body corporate.

Note the law in relation to psychological health is changing in the future with the implementation of the proposed Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Psychological Health) Regulations (Vic), which will amend the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (Vic).

Risk Management

Employers should complete a risk assessment, identifying, and assessing the risks associated with working long hours in their workplace.  The risk assessment should consider the following:

  1. The number of employees working excess hours
  2. The frequency of excess hours being worked in the workplace
  3. The maximum duration of individual excess hours in the workplace
  4. The nature of the work being performed during excess hours
  5. The nature of the working environment and the hazards present
  6. Personal characteristics of the employees performing the excess hours
  7. The level of supervision required in consideration of the risks

Risk controls should be implemented if required, which may include:

  • Implementing and enforcing policies which prescribe maximum daily and weekly working hours, as determined by the risk assessment
  • Implementing systems to monitor the actual number of hours worked
  • Implementing mandatory breaks during the completion of excess hours
  • Defining the nature of work that is permitted to be completed during excess hours and the nature of work that is not
  • Providing additional support services during the completion of excess hours
  • Monitoring the wellbeing of employees

The risks associated with long working hours will increase as the duration of the excess hours increases.  When conducting the risk assessment and implementing controls, employers are obligated to consult their employees.

Employers can be in breach of their OHS duties if employers have not identified, assessed and controlled the risks arising from long working hours where risks are present.