Beyond zero-hours: reducing the misery of insecure hours

Brendan Burchell
Alex Wood
01 Sep 2014
Beyond zero-hours: reducing the misery of insecure hours

Zero-hour contracts are just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger problem of insecure work scheduling. A year of shopfloor observation and interviews revealed how the insecurity it creates often leads to anxiety, stress and depression.

Zero-hour contracts have become a hot topic in the media during recent years, but not for good reasons. Trying to find out what is wrong with them we sought answers by investigating two large retailers, one in the United Kingdom and one in the United States. Our report was based on a year of shopfloor observation, as well as interviews with supermarket workers and union officials in both countries. It was submitted early this year to the government’s review of zero-hour contracts being carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

We found that the major problem with employment practices such as flexible hours is that they affect more people than those officially on zero-hour contracts and cause feelings of insecurity on several levels. After publishing the results of our research, hundreds of other employees contacted us to say how relevant our research was to their lives.

In fact, according to the study The Flexibility Gap: Employee Access to Flexibility in Work Schedules published in 2005 in the US, 28% of workers reported having schedules with variable start and end times while the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (2012) found that in Europe, around 35% of workers report facing changes in their work schedule and almost 20% only know of these changes on the same day or the day before they are due to work.

Surprisingly, we also found that even full time workers on standard contracts can experience schedule insecurity. Therefore, we argue that the concern surrounding zero-hour contracts must be broadened out to consider all insecure scheduling of work.


You’re never secure; you’re never secure in your hours.
Rosie (UK worker)

It has become a common practice for managers to contain staffing costs through scheduling flexibility, as it enables labour supply to be closely matched to demand. However, a side effect is that workers’ schedules become highly unpredictable. This generates insecurity, as it causes uncertainty and worry about changes to hours, income and schedules. The insecurity often results in feelings of powerlessness and an inability to plan one’s life, sometimes leading to anxiety, stress and depression. One interviewee said:


A whole lot of stress and anxiety... it’s sad, it’s heart breaking; I did a lot of crying, you know, I have to hold back tears mostly every time I talk about it. I’ve had a lot of therapy just from working at [the supermarket]... mental therapy for stress management, anxiety management, just from working there.
Akira (US worker)

This uncertainty, worry, stress and anxiety is caused by changes to the number of working hours and timing of shifts, and has serious consequences, especially for low-paid workers, such as those we studied in UK and US supermarkets. We found that insecure scheduling caused financial difficulties, while instability in hours makes it difficult for people to plan their finances confidently. Having unpredictable hours also makes it difficult for people to take on other jobs or to study, as they were concerned they could not avoid potential clashes with their current job.

Perhaps most concerning is how detrimental changes to hours and schedules can be for people’s ability to care for their children, grandchildren and parents. In our research we heard harrowing accounts of the lengths some employees had to go to find childcare if they were offered additional shifts at short notice. 

Changes to schedules can also damage precious family relationships and make it difficult to have a normal family life. Parents can face difficulty in planning quality time with their children, even on special occasions such as birthday parties. For spouses and partners it can be hard just finding time to see each other for planned activities such as family events.

Social relationships also suffer as people are unable to commit to recreational activities, whether it’s playing sport or meeting up with friends. And all the time employees are worried that if they cannot work when they are offered several hours by their employers, then they will be offered less work over subsequent weeks.

Managers should not only be concerned from an ethical perspective but also from a business one. Similar experiences of job-related insecurity, stress, anxiety and depression have repeatedly been shown to reduce employee performance and productivity.

Two sides of flexible working
Schedule flexibility can be understood as a two-sided experience. Sometimes flexibility is ‘employee-controlled’, for instance when employees request a change in their hours to enable them to take their children to and from school, or to take time off for family emergencies, and such flexibility can be very beneficial for employees.

But with zero-hour contracts, the flexibility is controlled by the employer, for instance to cope with fluctuations in workload. Such flexibility, imposed upon employees, can cause schedule insecurity.

Two mechanisms of ‘employer controlled’ flexibility are ‘over/flexed-time’ and ‘labour matching reviews’ – and they are actually far more common than zero-hour contracts.

Photograph: Lyza Danger Gardner

Over/flexed-time
The employment practices that we term ‘over/flexed-time’ enable staff to be matched to short-term changes in customer demand, which is taking the traditional practice of overtime to the extreme. Although distinct, a similar principle underpins the use of overtime (for part-time workers) and flexed-time for flexi-workers. Both practices enable schedule flexibility for employers by guaranteeing employees only minimal core contractual hours and then fluctuating additional over/flexed-time in order to match changes in customer demand.

When applying for a job, employees typically fill out a questionnaire that requires them to declare the hours they will be available to work. Employers often insist that employees sign a ‘flexi-contract’, whereby if they are given 24 hours’ notice they cannot refuse to work extra hours unless they have explicitly stated in the availability questionnaire that they would be unavailable. In order to get a job in the first place, most applicants naturally provide the maximum possible availability, known as ‘opening your availability’, an element that is considered by managers during the recruitment process.   

Low-paid workers with these types of contracts rarely refuse overtime; many employees simply need the extra pay, while some fear that refusing overtime once will mean that they won’t be asked again.

This mechanism of employer-controlled flexibility means employees often end up working many more hours than they are contracted to do. We found that many employees were working more, additional over/flexed hours than the core hours they were actually contracted to work. 


There is no sort of hour security… you work an average of 40 hours a week or 36 and a half hours a week and then when the overtime cuts come in, you are only on seven hours a week.
Jimmy (UK worker)

Labour matching reviews
A common tool for achieving employer-controlled schedule flexibility is what we term ‘labour matching reviews’. Labour matching reviews shift each employee’s core contracted hours in order to match predicted longer term trends in customer demand. Surprisingly, given the focus on zero-hour contracts in the media, even full time workers on standard contracts can be affected by labour matching reviews.

These reviews can be very frequent, taking place between two and four times a year in our UK case study. Moreover, the review period could drag on for many months and in some cases has lasted for over a year. For workers, labour matching reviews can seem like a virtually constant process, with the outcome being hard to predict. The experience of Sandra, a UK worker is particularly useful for bringing out both the insecurity and stress which schedule insecurity causes, and also the important role that management play in this dynamic.


All of a sudden you will get called into an office… and you’ll be all stressed about it because you can’t do certain hours... and then you won’t hear anything for two months and then three months and then four months will go past and you won’t hear nothing again... So a year down the road they [the managers] say they have to do it again. This happened to me and my colleagues and it went on for four years, when we were told more than once: ‘you’ve got to change hours again’, and then we never did.
Sandra (UK worker)

Manager facilitated but employee-controlled flexibility
There has been much talk on how zero-hours contracts might be better regulated, or even banned. But in addition to legal regulation, our research suggests that employee wellbeing could also be improved through a better understanding of the problems associated with flexible scheduling.

Firstly, managers need to recognise how difficult flexible scheduling can be for employees. Managers generally accept their duty of care in relation to workplace hazards such as dangerous machines, toxic chemicals, bullying, lifting heavy objects, discrimination and so on. The problems caused by flexible scheduling also need to be considered by managers as part of their duty of care towards employees, particularly vulnerable workers. Managers must also take on greater responsibility for ensuring that as much as possible scheduling is predictable and meets the needs of employees.

The most obvious way in which these problems can be reduced is by eliminating zero-hour contracts and other forms of flexible scheduling where possible. There are some companies where these forms of employment can easily be justified from a business perspective, but such contracts are increasingly used where the demand for labour is actually quite predictable. Paying more attention to rostering, employees should not need to have their hours of work varied in a chaotic way from week to week.

Secondly, research suggests that the involvement of employees or employee representatives in planning work schedules leads to schedules that are less disruptive to employees’ lives, reducing stress and anxiety.

Managers who have never had unpredictable schedules imposed upon them, and who have little understanding of the lives of their employees outside the workplace, are in a poor position to make decisions about more humane scheduling. Therefore, health and safety forums, policies and procedures (such as those carried out by union health and safety reps), should be widened to include scheduling issues.

Finally, mitigating the misery that can be caused by insecure scheduling should be an integral part of management training.

Alex Wood is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.

Brendan Burchell is reader and head of the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.