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With more and more clinics offering around-the-clock service, vets, nurses and other clinical staff are finding themselves being asked to work some pretty unusual hours.
Whatever hours you work, the RCVS’ Working Time Regulations 1998 document (WTR) still applies – a maximum 48-hour working week is what’s expected. However, if you work in an out-of-hours setting, or are on call, it’s important to understand what your entitlement to “down time” is.
Working in a 24-hour clinic
If your practice runs a 24-hour service, it’s particularly important for management to be aware of the WTR guidance, unless you have specifically signed a document that opts out of this. If the surgery you’re working for is a partnership, the WTR rules don’t apply to the partners – just their workers. For every 24-hour period you work, you’re allowed 11 hours of rest time. These 11 hours have to be consecutive. So, if you’re on call for 24 hours, you can’t be asked to take a few hours “here and there” across the 24-hour period – it’s to be taken all at once. The onus is on your management to find cover during your rest time. If you’re working for six hours, the minimum break time you’re entitled to is 20 minutes per every 6-hour shift. Ideally, you would get longer.
Being on call
The definition of “on call” at your practice needs to be very clear. It’s important to know that, if you’re working on call, you’re classed as working – even if you’re at home, or staying in a hotel. You may not be needed for the duration of your on-call shift, but the law still sees this in the same way as it would if you were in a clinic. However, some differences do exist depending on the location you’re working from.
Being on call at the practice
In this instance, while you are still entitled to your 11-hour break, you may find the hours you’d allocated as your sleeping period change at short notice, should an emergency case arrive or need your attention.
Being on call at home
If your employer allows you to be on call at home – perhaps allowing you to take home a mobile phone where you can be contacted rather than staying in the practice – the WTR warns this may not be classed as working time until you are called out. Ultimately, it’s up to your managers to decide how they classify your on-call time at home, so make sure this is clearly defined in your contract.
All workers are entitled to a break, and when you’re working in a demanding veterinary setting where no two days are the same, it’s vital you get quiet time to process what’s happened, or just to switch off. Make sure you know your rights, and if you feel the regulations are being ignored (and nobody is doing anything), take legal advice to protect yourself.