What is the law around working hours and what does it mean for you?

It’s not uncommon for you to feel taken advantage of at work not getting a break today or staying late to cover a staff shortage, for example. When pressure is applied to do these things, it can be hard to say ‘no, I’m not going to do that’. 

Understanding your rights around working hours could help you recognise when you’re being overworked. 

The Working Time Regulations 1998 (the Regulations) impose a limit on the number of hours you can lawfully be asked to work in a week. The Regulations also give workers the right to minimum daily, and weekly, rest periods. In this article, we explain what you're entitled to. We’ll also look at the rules around annual leave and what to do if you’re being denied your rights. 

How many hours can I be asked to work?

You can’t be asked to work more than an average of 48 hours a week, unless you:

  • agree to work more hours (this is known as ‘opting out’) or
  • do a job with different working time rules (see ‘Exceptions’ below).

To work out your average weekly working hours, add up the hours you’ve worked in the past 17 weeks, then divide that number by 17. In some cases, this can be extended up to a maximum of 52 weeks, but only if there is a “collective agreement” in place.

This means that (if your contract allows) your employer can ask you to work extra hours. However, they must reduce your hours in future weeks to balance out the weekly average. You might want to keep a note of your hours - your employer is actually obliged to keep a record for 2 years. 

Opting out

If you want to work more than 48 hours a week, you can do this by signing a written agreement (separate from your contract). You shouldn’t be pressured into doing this, or treated any differently because you decide not to. You can change your mind about opting out at any time by giving the notice period in the agreement - this can’t be more than 3 months. 

What counts as a working hour?

A working hour is time when you’re doing things your employer asks you to do. This includes:

  • training
  • working from home
  • working lunches
  • travel time which is part of the job
  • paid overtime, and
  • unpaid overtime which you agree to do at your employer’s request.

Working hours don’t include:

  • holidays
  • lunch breaks
  • travel to and from a fixed place of work, or
  • unpaid overtime which you volunteered for (choosing to stay late to finish a task).

Exceptions

Some jobs are covered by the Regulations but with exceptions (such as emergency service staff). Others aren’t covered by the Regulations at all (such as self-employed people and company directors, who are in charge of their own hours). Certain professions, such as aviation and public transport, are covered by their own working time rules. You can find out more about jobs with different working time rules from ACAS.

The Regulations also set out different rules for night workers and young workers.

Rest breaks

The Regulations set minimum rest breaks for workers. You’re entitled to breaks whether you’re working from home, a workplace or another location. 

Breaks during your shift

You’re entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes if you work more than 6 hours a day. You can take your break away from your workstation and it shouldn’t be at the start or end of your working day. Your employer isn’t obliged to pay you for your break, unless that’s what your contract says.

Breaks between working days

You’re entitled to a break of at least 11 hours between finishing a working day and starting the next. If this becomes impossible because of an emergency at work, your employer must take steps to ensure you’re offered your rest at a later date or in a different way, such as lighter duties or additional support. 

Breaks during the working week

You’re entitled to:

  • 24 uninterrupted hours of rest in each 7 days you work, or
  • 48 hours of rest in each 14 days you work (this can be taken as 2 days off in a row or 2 separate days off).

Shift workers

The rules on daily and weekly rest don’t apply to shift workers who change shift patterns where there isn’t enough time between shifts to offer the full rest periods.  However, your employer should still do their best to ensure you’re offered your legal rest entitlement of 90 hours on average per week.

How much annual leave should I be getting?

The statutory minimum

The Regulations say that workers must have 5.6 weeks of paid holidays in each leave year - this is known as the statutory minimum holiday entitlement. This includes any bank holidays. You might be entitled to more, depending on what’s written in your contract. The statutory minimum applies even if you do shifts, term-time work or a zero-hours contract. If you work part time, the number of days you get is reduced in proportion to the number of days you work (known as pro rata). You can use this Government calculator to work out how much leave you should be getting.  

Carrying over leave

You can carry 8 days of your statutory minimum entitlement over into the next holiday year if your employer has agreed to this in a contract. However, your employer can’t force you to carry over any of your statutory minimum entitlement. 

In 2020, the Regulations were amended to allow employees to carry over up to 4 weeks of paid annual leave into their next 2 annual leave years, if it wasn’t reasonably practicable to take the holidays due to the coronavirus pandemic. Read more about how the pandemic might affect your rights at work.  

Part days

If you work part time, you might find you’re entitled to part of a day off. Your employer isn’t allowed to round down your leave; but they aren’t obliged to round it up either. So it’s best to discuss how this will be dealt with - perhaps an early finish or a late start one day.

How much say does my employer get over my leave?

Your employer can:

  • refuse holidays at certain times 
  • make you take leave at certain times (such as Christmas or Bank Holidays)
  • decide how many days off you can take at one time
  • cancel a holiday - but they must give you at least as much notice as the time off you requested (so 7 days’ notice for 7 days off). They should also give a good reason for this.
  • set the start and end dates for the leave year
  • force you to take unpaid leave, if this is in your contract.

What if I’m being overworked?

Lots of people feel pressured to work extra hours or give up their breaks / holidays. Understandably, many worry their employer will treat them poorly if they don’t. However, it’s against the law for your employer to treat you badly because you’ve tried to assert certain legal rights, including the Regulations. If they do this, you may have a claim in the Employment Tribunal.

If you think you’re working too many hours, or you’re not getting your breaks/holidays, it’s usually best to raise the issue informally with your employer first. If this doesn’t work, you can raise a formal grievance

What if you want to take your case further? 

At the moment, different bits of the Regulations are enforced by different bodies. 

  • You can only bring a Tribunal case if your complaint relates to rest breaks and holiday entitlement, or if your employer has subjected you to a detriment/dismissed you because you have asserted your rights under the Working Time Regulations.
  • If your complaint is about weekly working hours, you need to raise your complaint with the Health and Safety Executive or in the civil courts. 

The Law Commission has recommended a review of the current position, in part, because it’s confusing to workers. 

Next steps

If you’re planning to raise a grievance or take your case further, you can use Valla to organise your evidence and build a timeline of what happened. Sign up for a free account.

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