The NHS Executive is expected to recommend that all health service managers should be covered by the European working time directive, on which an advance letter is due next Thursday.
The move follows strong lobbying for the inclusion of managers on individual trust contracts, as well as those covered by national terms and conditions.
The move has been greeted as 'a very positive step forward' by NHS Confederation special projects officer Jane Keep. But she had doubts about its monitoring when most senior managers' contracts state that they will work the number of hours necessary to ensure their duties are covered.
Many NHS organisations would have to review those contracts, she said. It would be 'extremely good' if the working time directive fully applied to managers, because some NHS staff 'feel they cannot go home before their managers go home'.
The directive, which took effect on October 1, has enormous financial implications for NHS employers as it restricts the number of hours staff can legally work.
They will have to develop new systems to keep track of staff working hours, rest periods and leave entitlement. It raises difficult questions for the NHS where many staff do not work defined 'office hours'.
Sources say the NHS Executive has made concessions, including allowing 'sleep-ins' and on-call periods to count as working time.
Department of Trade and Industry guidance excludes sleeping-in from working time.
The NHS Executive's interpretation of the directive will be disclosed in the advance letter, which will be sent out with a health service circular and 'full guidance'.
It is expected to set national limits for staff working long shifts which may be varied locally. This is expected to meet fears that the requirement for compensatory time off after long shifts could interfere with continuity of care.
Unison has welcomed the concessions, although the union anticipates legal challenges to some of the Executive's interpretation. The rules for ambulance staff, for example, are still unclear.
'We are quite happy that they are starting to take into account the principles of the directive itself, and the general principles of adapting the work to the needs of the workforce. Control of working hours is a key part of managing health and safety,' national officer John Richards said.