Working hours: How to get the right balance

24 August 2023

An image of a harvester on a field

As many farmers and growers across the country begin harvesting, there is a need to get the job done, but also to ensure that all workers on farm have sufficient rest to help them stay alert and stay safe.

Anyone who is fatigued is likely to suffer a decline in mental and physical performance. Prolonged exertion, sleep loss and disruption of the body’s internal clock can all take a toll. There is also a link between workload and fatigue and evidence that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine paced, complex or monotonous.

Rules on working hours

There are a number of rules on the number of hours that workers can do – these are covered by the WTR (Working Time Regulations).

This applies to workers, except those in exempt sectors or those who are genuinely self-employed. Agriculture is not exempt from WTR regulations. It covers the following aspects: 

  • Maximum weekly working time
  • Minimum rest breaks
  • Daily and weekly rest periods
  • Night work 
  • Annual leave

The maximum working week is 48 hours per week, averaged over a 17 week period. Adult workers can opt out of a 48 hour working week, but young workers (under 18 years old) cannot. 

The rules around working time regulations, how they differ for young people, night workers, and those working on farm, are explained in detail for members in our working time regulations business guide.

The dangers of fatigue

Fatigue describes the decline in mental and/or physical performance that comes from prolonged exertion, sleep loss and disruption of the body’s internal clock.

It is also related to workload because workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine paced, complex or monotonous.

Fatigue results in slower reaction times, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention, underestimation of risk and reduced coordination.

As well as reducing productivity, fatigue can lead to errors and accidents, ill health, and injury. It is also thought to be a factor in 20% of road accidents.

Exceptions for agriculture

There are deviations from the rules when there is a need for continuity of production, or where there is a foreseeable surge in activity. 

In such a case, compensatory rest should be provided by employers.

Managing fatigue

Fatigue is a risk, and like any other risk, needs to be identified and managed. Here are some tips we've put together on how you can manage fatigue: 

  • Start the day right. A good restful night of sleep can help give you the energy for the day ahead. Try to get between six and eight hours.
  • Follow up good night’s sleep with a nutritious breakfast of proteins and healthy grains (this should not be a problem for arable farmers!).
  • Stay hydrated during the day. Try and drink between six and eight glasses. A cool drink of water can really help give a boost when feeling sluggish.
  • Take breaks. Taking a break is good physically and helps relieve stiff limbs and muscles. Taking a break is also good for you mentally and can help you to stay focused when you resume work.
  • Build in time to have down time, which will help to reduce stress. This can be a simple activity, such as spending time with family or friends, or going for a walk.

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