Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature European Working Time Directive

Running out of time

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 14 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1507
  1. Tessa Richards, associate editor
  1. 1BMJ, London
  1. trichards{at}

    The deadline for implementing European legislation on doctors’ working hours is looming, but it remains unclear what the rules will be or the effect they will have on staff and patients, Tessa Richards reports

    Few pieces of recent legislation have generated as much heat among doctors as the European Working Time Directive. Since its inception in 1993, EU member states have adopted different stances to this law, which applies to all employees. In the health sector, the UK, along with Denmark, has been among the more conscientious about applying it. As a result British doctors have been fully engaged in the much wider debate in Brussels on proposals to change the directive. A decision on whether new draft legislation is approved or falls will be made by the end of the month. The crunch issue for doctors centres on whether the legislation is affecting the quality of patient care and professional training.

    The directive was incorporated into British law in 1998. Junior doctors were exempt from it initially, but it was later extended to cover them and the UK agreed to implement it incrementally. The plan was to reduce the working hours of doctors in training to 58 a week by 2003, 56 by 2007, and 48 by August 2009. Over the past year the practical difficulties of devising rotas to meet the 48 hour goal, which includes rigid stipulations about rest periods, have becoming increasingly apparent. So has concern about the effects on patients and junior doctors of achieving full compliance with the law.

    Stand off

    Over the past four years, national governments and the European parliament have been discussing revisions to a new text of the working time directive drafted by the European Commission. Discussions are tense because MEPs and governments of member states hold polarised views. The main bone …

    View Full Text

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription