Working hours

The way working hours are arranged can help an organisation to manage its business and help workers balance their responsibilities at work and at home. Organisations have a responsibility to make sure that workers are receiving the correct amount of breaks and are not working too many hours.

Breaks and rest periods

In general a worker has the right to:

  • at least a 20 minute break if they will work longer than six hours. However organisations often allow  longer and/or more frequent breaks
  • not work on average more than 48 hours per week. Individuals may choose to work longer by "opting out" (see below)
  • 11 consecutive hours' rest in any 24-hour period
  • one day off each week or two consecutive days off in a fortnight
  • a limit on the normal working hours of night workers to an average eight hours in any 24 hour period.

How many hours a week can I work?

Most workers don't have to work more than 48 hours per week on average. If a worker agrees to work beyond the 48-hour limit they must put it in writing. This is known as an opt-out agreement.

There is no obligation on a worker to sign an opt-out agreement and they should not suffer any detriment if they choose not to do so.

Workers have the right to cancel an opt-out agreement by giving their employer a period of notice. This notice must be at least seven days, although a longer notice period may be set by the employer. If there is a longer notice period this must be clearly stated as a term of the opt-out agreement and cannot be longer than three months.

The average working week is calculated by taking the average weekly hours over a 17 week reference period. This means that an employee may work more than 48 hours in some weeks without having to opt-out so long as the average does not exceed 48 hours.

Zero hours contracts

There is no minimum amount of hours that an employer must offer other than what is set out in a workers contract. A worker is often contracted to work a specific amount of hours each week. Alternatively they might not be contracted to work any hours and be on a Zero hours contracts.

A zero hours contract is generally seen to be a contract between an employer and a worker where:

  • there is no obligation on the employer to offer work
  • if work is offered, the worker is under no obligation to work it.

A zero hours worker has the same rights as any other worker, including the right to paid annual leave.

For more information, go to Zero hours contracts.

When does travelling count towards working hours?

Workers who travel to a fixed workplace will usually not have their travel to work counted as working time. Any travel required to do their role once they have arrived at their workplace and until they leave to return home, should be counted as working time.

If a worker has a fixed place of work but is asked to work from another location then whether the time it takes to travel to that place of work will be classed as working time will depend on their contract.

Mobile workers who have no fixed place of work (sometimes called peripatetic workers), and travel straight from their home to their first job should have this considered as working time. There is however no automatic right to be paid for this time. A worker should check their contract to see whether they should be paid.

Being on-call

Some organisations require their workers to be on-call (sometimes called stand-by) outside of their usual working hours. Whether this time should count as part of their working hours depends on the conditions attached to the on-call time.

If the worker is free to be at home and to pursue leisure activities then only the time spent actually working would generally be classed as working hours.

If the worker has to be at their place of work then all the on-call time should usually be classed as working hours, whether the worker is required to work or not.

In some circumstances an employer may not require the worker to be at work but may put other restrictions on them such as:

  • having to be able to get to work within a certain period of time
  • having to be awake at certain times
  • limits on drinking alcohol.

The more restrictions that are put on a worker who is on-call, the more likely it is that the entirety of the time should be considered as part of their working hours.

Working at night

A night worker is someone who normally works at least three hours during the night period, usually the period between 11pm and 6am.The worker and employer can mutually agree a different night period if they want to.

Night workers should not work more than an average of eight hours in a 24-hour period. This average is usually calculated over a 17 week reference period, but it can be over a longer period if the worker and employer agree. Regular overtime is included in the average and workers can not opt out of this limit.

Due to the possible impact on a worker's wellbeing, employers must offer workers a free health assessment before they become a night worker and on a regular basis while they are working nights. Workers do not have to accept this health check.

Additional rights for young workers

A young worker is a worker over school leaving age but under 18. There are special regulations for young workers which include:

  • not working for more than eight hours per day
  • a limit of 40 hours work per week
  • having a rest break of 30 minutes if their shift lasts more than 4.5 hours
  • two days off each week
  • additional restrictions on working at night.

Young workers cannot opt-out of their maximum working hours of 40 per week.

For more information, go to Employing younger workers.

Overtime

Overtime is usually classed as hours worked over an organisation's regular full time requirement. When a worker has fixed working hours, overtime would be any additional hours worked. 

An employer may offer overtime to cope with an increase in demand for their products or services. For example to satisfy a large customer order, or during staff shortages. It can be compulsory or voluntary.  A recognised system of paid overtime is more common with hourly paid staff than salaried staff. 

Whether a worker is required to work overtime depends on the employment contract.  Details should be set out in their contract of employment or the staff handbook.

There is no legal right to receive an additional payment or be paid at a higher rate for any overtime worked.

The Working Time Regulations apply to overtime as well as a worker's normal hours.

Making up for lost breaks with compensatory rest

In some circumstances a worker may be required to work during a rest period and have to take their rest later. This is known as compensatory rest. Examples of when it may be necessary include where:

  • the worker's activities involve the need for continuity of service or production
  • there is a foreseeable surge of activity
  • an unforeseen circumstance which is outside of the employer's control requires it.

Industries in which compensatory rest may be required include security and health care.

Compensatory rest must be the same length of time as the break or part of the break that a worker has missed and an employer must ensure that every worker receives at least 90 hours of rest per week.

Raising concerns regarding working time

If a worker feels that the Working Time Regulations are not being followed, they should first consider raising the issue informally. Many issues can be resolved quickly by having a conversation with a line manager or other appropriate person within the business.

If an informal approach does not work a worker has the option of raising a formal complaint (also known as a grievance). This would be done in writing and would make the employer aware of how strongly the worker feels about the situation, while also giving the employer the opportunity to resolve it.

As a last resort the worker could consider making a complaint to an Employment Tribunal or Health and Safety Executive. There is generally a three month time limit for bringing a claim to Employment Tribunal. However this time limit does pause if Early Conciliation is taking place. For more information, go to Employment Tribunals.