Working Time and Hours for Employees

13 January 2021

Regardless of where an employee works, understanding when it’s time to work should be one of the first confirmed factors.

A firm understanding of what an employee’s working hours and breaks are essential for both employees and employers.

Employee work schedule laws are in place to protect employees. This also ensures that employers can safely improve the productivity of their employees.

Depending on an employee’s working time, they may receive periods of rest. These breaks often count as working time, though it can vary from employer to employer.

What is working time?

Working time refers to the normal working hours of an employee. This can either be a shift or regularly scheduled days.

An example of the former would be a part-time employee at a supermarket having two six-hour shifts every weekend. These hours can change, depending on whether the employee or employer agree for the employee to work more hours or shifts.

An example of the latter would be a full-time employee with daily working hours of 9 to 5 in an office. Except for national holidays and annual leave, the employee comes to work every weekday for 9am and leaves at 5pm. These would be their contracted hours.

The legal shift length varies from industry to industry, yet most state that the maximum shift length is 12 hours. 

Legal break time at work

The Working Time Regulations 1998 act states how many breaks employees are entitled to and how long they can be. This depends on their legal working hours and the breaks they can have, as outlined in their contract.

Young employees (under the age of 18) must receive an uninterrupted 30-minute break during a working day over four and a half hours long. This break can’t occur at either the start or end of the day.

It is also worth remembering that some employers should give employees breaks for safety reasons. This is advisable in roles that risk health and safety with ‘monotonous work’, such as working in a factory.

Naturally, an employment contract can state if an employee can take different breaks. This can include more breaks or whether the breaks can split-up between the working day.

Employers should remember that a break isn’t legally a rest break if the employer tells the employee to resume work before the break finishes.

Rest periods under the working time directive

Working time directive breaks state how much time an employee can have for rest periods in an average working week.

Employees must receive an uninterrupted 20-minute break during a six hour working day. This break can’t occur at either the start or end of the day.

Informal rests, such as smoking breaks, aren’t typically covered in employment contracts. However, employers can decide whether they allow these breaks.

For every 12-hour shift, the law states that there must be a break of 11 consecutive hours between each shift. For example, if a 12-hour shift ends at 1 pm, the start time for the next shift can be 12 am at the earliest.

Working time for full-time hours, by law, has a maximum of 48 hours a week. This is on an average of 17 weeks under the and is often called either the Working Time Regulations (1998).or the Working Time Directive.

Working Time Regulations (1998) is the UK regulations put in place to comply with the Working Time Directive, or Directive 2003/88/EC.

Breaks for 48-hour weeks

Many employers will allow an employee to opt-out of the 48 hour week if they wish to.

Naturally, an employer can also ask an employee to opt-out of a 48 hour week. However, they can’t unfairly treat any employee who refuses to. Such as with harassment or terminating their employment.

Opting out of a 48 hour week must be confirmed in writing. If an employer wishes for an employee to confirm this, they must sign an opt-out agreement.

The maximum resting periods during working time regulations is 11 hours between 12 hour shifts. However, this is in the case of the maximum shift time.

Other than time between shifts, employees must receive at least one day off a week. This can be either an uninterrupted 24 hours without work each week or 48 hours each fortnight.

Employees that can work more than a 48 hour week

Employees in the following conditions or roles may work more than the Working Time Directive without written consent:

  • Those in the armed forces.
  • Employees in the emergency services.
  • The police.
  • Security & surveillance workers.
  • Domestic servants in private households.
  • Seafarers or fishermen working on inland waterway vessels.
  • Managing executives in control of their company or business.
  • Anywhere that 24-hour staffing is necessary.

Employees who can’t opt-out of a 48 hour week

Due to the nature of their work or industry, these employees must stick to working time regulations.

  • Those that work in the road transport industry (not including delivery drivers that drive vehicles under 3.5 tonnes.)
  • Employees travelling in and operating any vehicle covered by EU rules on drivers’ hours.
  • Airline crew.
  • Security guards on vehicles carrying high-value goods.
  • Employees working on ships or boats (with the exception of seafarers or fishermen working on inland waterway vessels.)

What working weekends laws are in the UK?

The only specific working weekend laws in the UK relate to working on a Sunday.

By law, an employee can opt-out of working on Sundays unless it’s the only day they work.. Agreements must be included within the employment contract. Or, within a written statement of terms & conditions.

An employee can opt-out of Sunday hours at any time, even if it is within their contract. Though there are conditions for opting out of Sunday hours:

  • An employee must give three months’ notice that they want to opt-out.An employee must continue to work Sunday hours during this three month period if the employer wants them to.

Employers must inform the employee of Sunday working rights at the beginning of their employment.

Sunday working in shops and betting shops

There are additional details of Sunday working, specifically for those working in retail and in betting shops.

Employees in retail don’t have to work Sundays if they began their roles with the employer on or before 26 Aug 1994 (26/08/1994). Employees in betting shops don’t have to work Sundays if they began their roles with the employer on or before 2 Jan 1995 (02/01/1995).

In Northern Ireland, the date for the former is 4 Dec 1997 (04/12/1997) and the latter is 26 Feb 2004 (26/02/2004).

Rates of pay for Sunday working

These working weekend laws also specify that weekend hours don’t need to be paid at a higher rate. Employers only have to pay more per hour if it’s a part of their contract.

For example, one store may offer higher pay per hour for Sundays to incentivise employees volunteering to work on Sundays. This doesn’t mean that the store next door has to do the same.

Frequently asked questions

Is travel time included in working hours?

Typically speaking, no. An employer expects an employee to begin working from the beginning of a workday or at the start of their shift. Because of this, travel time isn't part of an employee’s working hours.

The only exception to this is if travel takes place during working hours for purposes such as travelling for business. Examples of this include travelling on a train to reach a meeting.

How many hours, by law, can you work at night?

Anyone who primarily works during the ‘night period’, between 11 pm to 6 am, for at least three hours is a ‘night worker’.

Night workers can potentially work a legal shift length of 12-hours. As long as the average length of their shift is under eight hours within a 24-hour time period,

An employee who works primarily at night must adhere to the same health & safety assessments as any other employee.

There are special additional restrictions for night workers who handle special hazards or whose work can cause physical or mental strains. A risk assessment should be carried out for all roles carried out at night.

There are additional night working hours policies in the UK for employees aged 16 or 17. 

It is illegal for employees aged 16 or 17 to work between midnight and 4am except in specific circumstances. They are:

  • Agriculture: this includes farming and environmental work.
  • Cultural: this includes sporting, artistic and advertising activities.
  • Deliveries: this includes working with post or newspapers.
  • Hospitality: this includes catering and working in a hotel.
  • Medical: this includes working in a hospital or nursing home.

However, an employer can rely on a young employee in certain circumstances. In the event that there’s no adult available, an employer must give the young employee a rest period the same length as the extended shift.

These extended shifts can occur if there’s either:

  • A sudden increase in demand: for example, retail stores during the festive period. 
  • When there must be a continuity of a service or production continued: for example, if a film shoot continues on into the night.

Assistance with working hours

Peninsula can aid with any HR confusion. Whether it's how many hours rest employees receive or giving an employee compensatory rest.

We can help establish working hours and break types by creating employee contracts. We’re also on hand at any time for 24-hour HR advice.

For anything else, get in touch with our team of HR experts by calling 0800 028 2420

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