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Department of Sociology


The most recent data suggests 4.6 million people in the UK experience precarious scheduling 3.9 million more than those on zero hour contracts.

By Alex J. Wood (University of Oxford) and Brendan J. Burchell (University of Cambridge)


Below is the latest data on our measure of precarious scheduling in the UK. It is shown along side unemployment.

Zero hour contracts have come to be seen as synonymous with precarious scheduling. However, zero hour contracts are just one form of insecure scheduling and represent just the tip of the iceberg of this problem. Zero hours contracts are emblematic of a much more general phenomenon of precarious scheduling in the UK. This is obscured by the definition of zero hours contracts being too narrowly focused on absence of any guaranteed hours. The key issue for this sort of toxic precarious work is not that they offer no hours, but that they offer little security of which hours an employee will work in a given day, week or month.

Zero hour contracts are just one way in which firms can achieve temporal flexibility. In a 24/7 economy even workers with standard full time contracts can experience significant scheduling insecurity.

The move towards an on-demand economy had been facilitated by a number of institutional changes such as the decline in collective regulation of working time, shifts in legal and normative regulations which enable 24/7 working, the growth of data which allows employers to accurately modeling demand and which thus makes the close matching of labour supply (including real time adjustments) to demand more profitable. Meanwhile seven years of austerity have placed the public sector under pressure to contain labour costs through temporal flexibility.

The past decade has witnessed a fragmentation of working time in which firms have achieved greater temporal flexibility through using a variety of mechanisms. These include: zero hour and short hour contracts, flexible contracts–which guarantee a minimum number of hours but no fixed scheduling pattern, gig economy labour platforms and labour matching reviews– whereby a firm reviews their staffing needs and as a result may shift their entire workforce’s schedules.

Research by Alex J. Wood, published today in Work, Employment and Society, highlights the high levels of insecurity that precarious scheduling can cause for workers. This insecurity is not limited to zero hour contracts. Precarious scheduling is shown to constitute an insidious environment of abuse where many workers beg managers for more hours or changes to their schedules and are punished by having their hours cut or moved to clash with childcare and social activities.

Understanding the true extent of precarious scheduling requires a broader definition than the conventional focus on zero hour contracts. We, therefore, use the European Working Conditions Survey to estimate the number of UK workers who experience ‘manager-controlled flexible scheduling’, that is practices which enable workplace managers to vary ‘the number and timing of employees’ work hours' (Lambert, 2008). We define the workers who are subject to this sort of precarious scheduling as those who report that their working time arrangements change regularly, and their working times are dictated by their employer or company and they are unable to influence their own starting or finishing times.

Using this definition and the 2015 wave of the European Working Conditions Survey (this survey is undertaken every five years), we find that 14.7% of all UK workers experienced manager controlled alterations to their schedules–often at very short notice. This equates to 4.6 million people– 3.9 million more people than the official estimates for those employed on zero hour contracts.

Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) paints a wide-ranging picture of Europe at work across countries, occupations, sectors and age groups once every five years. The 2015 survey interviewed nearly 44,000 workers in 35 countries including the UK. Its findings provide detailed information on a broad range of issues, including exposure to physical and psychosocial risks, work organisation, work–life balance, and health and well-being. The survey also found that those who have these challenging schedules imposed upon them also experience worse mental health, typified by anxiety and feeling low.


Year 2005 2010 2015
Precarious scheduling rate 12.10 18.4 14.7
Unemployment (July-August) rate 4.7 7.8 5.3 


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Supplimentary Data

Supplimentary Data