Maximum Working Hours

09 July 2019

Every business has different requirements when it comes to their working time.

As an employer, you need to comply with the legal rules for work hours, on a daily and weekly basis. If you neglect them, your staff could end up working longer than necessary–without proper breaks, pay, or precautions.

In this guide, we'll look at what maximum working hours are, UK laws on them, and how to ensure employees work within appropriate hours.

What are working hours?

Working hours is the time an employee spends performing their job. They're at their employer's disposal during this agreed time.

Their ‘working time' can relate to any performing tasks, duties, and activities. For example, a working week includes hours spent:

  • Completing everyday tasks .
  • Completing job-related training.
  • Travel time spent on a job (if it's not a fixed place of work).
  • Working lunches and breaks.
  • Staying late for paid and unpaid overtime.
  • Being on-call for a job.

A planner showing a working week.

What is the UK law on working hours?

In the UK, the weekly limit for hours comes under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR).

The legislation provides an outline for the maximum weekly working hours. It's also applicable to anyone with more than one job, as well as those in one fixed place.

The maximum hours staff can work are outlined below:

  • Workers are limited to an average of 48 hours in one week. (This is over a 17-week period).
  • Workers are limited to an average of eight hours work per day.
  • Night-workers are limited to an average of eight hours per day (for safety reasons).

If you force an employee to work more than 48 hours a week, you could breach their legal requirement. Here, they may raise their claim to the employment tribunal.

If you've dismissed them for refusing to work more than 48 hours a week, they could raise a claim for unfair dismissal. You could end up facing compensation penalties, business disruption, and reputational damages.

Who is not covered by the Working Time Regulations?

When it comes to working extra hours, the average 48-hour work limit isn't applicable in all businesses. For example, the Working Time Regulations doesn't fully apply to:

  • Vehicle drivers (for lorries, coaches, or heavy goods).
  • Emergency services or armed forces.
  • Domestic servant in a private household
  • Airline and ship workers.
  • Managing executives, like business owners (whose working time isn’t controlled).

A lorry driver with no fixed place of work.

How do you calculate average weekly working hours?

You can calculate the average hours worked by an employee through specific calculations.

If you work more than 48 hours a week, you've gone beyond the legal weekly limit. (This is in accordance with the Working Time Regulations).

Here are ways to calculate an employee's average weekly work hours:

  • Normal working hours: Establish their total hours in 17 weeks (where no leave was taken). Then add the total to regular overtime hours.
  • Variable working hours: Establish their total hours in 17 weeks (including overtime). Divide this by the weeks in the reference period (which is usually 17 weeks).
  • Night-work hours: With night-work, calculate their total hours in 17 weeks (including overtime). Divide this by the weeks in the reference period (which is usually 17 weeks).

Remember, a night worker isn't allowed to perform more than eight hours on average. This means the 48-hour limit still applies.

A night worker in a warehouse.

Can an employee opt-out of the limit for working hours?

Yes, an employee can 'opt-out' of the limit for their working hours–but only through certain situations.

They can choose to work more than 48 hours per working week. But this needs to be decided by the worker themselves. An employer cannot force them to sign an opt-out agreement; or dismiss them for refusing to sign one.

Many businesses will have shifts that are longer than the legal limit. If the right legal advice and practices are followed, (and staff agree to them), working time may be longer.

An image of time spent at work.

How to manage working hours for your employees

From managing night workers to unpaid overtime, employers need to ensure time spent on work doesn't exceed the 48-hour limit.

By doing so, you'll be able to follow the legal rules and requirements for working time–protecting your staff's safety, welfare, and wellbeing.

Here are steps on managing working hours for your employees:

Create an opt-out agreement

It's important to create opt-out agreements, especially if jobs take longer than normal working hours. By providing staff with this option, you can remain legally complacent. And it can even attract potential workers seeking jobs with such requirements.

Remember, an employer cannot enforce opt-out agreements. Every employee has the right to cancel them whenever they want–even if it's part of their written contract.

They'll need to present a seven-day notice beforehand. And the employer will need to provide a three-month notice period for written opt-out agreements.

Offer appropriate rest breaks

You need to offer appropriate rest breaks during work hours. These can range from daily breaks to lunch breaks. Your staff have the right to:

  • 11 hours of rest between a working day.
  • 24-hour break each week.
  • 20-minute rest breaks if they work more than six hours (either as rest or lunch breaks).

Employers are allowed to provide breaks that last for a longer period; but they cannot be shorter than the statutory amount.

Provide annual leave rights

All employees are entitled to 28 days of paid annual leave. This includes personal leave and eight public holidays, like Easter Monday or Christmas Day.

Holiday pay is calculated by adding accrued holiday entitlements. This can come from working overtime or earning commission.

In some cases, staff members may take 'special leave' from work. These special rules for leave are outlined below:

  • Public duties: Legally entitled to 'reasonable' time off to perform public duties. This is outlined under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA). For example, being a member of local authorities or a school governor.
  • Court attendance: Having to attend judicial hearings. For example, standing as a witness or being summoned for jury service.
  • Trade union duties: Legally entitled to reasonable paid time off to perform trade union duties. For example, attending negotiation meetings or voting in union elections.
  • Parental leave: Legal rights for parents with children and dependents. For example, maternity, paternity, and parental leave.
  • Personal leave: For unexpected situations which require immediate resolution. For example, bereavement or domestic emergencies (like house fires or burglaries).

Manage lay-offs and short-time working

In extreme situations, an employer may be required to temporarily change an employee's working hours.

Lay-offs are when an employee is sent home without pay because a full workday isn't temporarily available. They may be entitled to 'statutory guarantee pay' which is limited to five days per three-month period.

Short-time working is when an employee is laid off for a number of hours or day during their working time. They must be paid for the hours they worked, but you don't need to pay for non-worked hours.

You can take either method if they're outlined in employment contracts. However, this must be presented as an express term, and not an implied on. Or if they've been agreed to through trade unions.

Get expert advice on maximum working hours with Peninsula

Every employer must ensure staff work within the legal 48-hour limit. That way, you can protect their welfare, as well as your business's. If you need them to work more than 48 hours a week (on average), you must follow the appropriate rules.

Neglecting their working time rights and entitlements means you could face compensation penalties and reputational damages.

Peninsula offers expert advice on managing maximum working hours. Our team offers a 24/7 HR advice service which is available 365 days a year; with multi-lingual assistance and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want more advice? Book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants. Call 0800 028 2420..

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