Working Time Directive

09 July 2019

As an employer, you need to know how many hours your employees can safely work. While you may have employees that ask to work more than the maximum required hours, this isn't always possible.

Working Time Regulations (1998) are in place to protect your employee's welfare and are under enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). As an employer, you are responsible for the health, well-being, and welfare of your workers. Meaning that if you fail to monitor or enforce Working Time Directive regulations, you could face costly sanctions.

In this guide, we will explore the rights of employees, the limits on staff working hours, and how you can protect the health & safety of your workers

What is the working time directive?

The Working Time Regulations (1998) are what implement working time into UK law.

This law is in place to improve workplace health & safety regulations by implementing rules regarding working hours. These rules include daily and weekly rest periods, rest breaks, annual leave entitlements, maximum working weeks, and night work restrictions.

The basic rights and regulations of employees include:

  • Right to work an average maximum of 48 hours per week (unless staff choose to opt-out).
  • 6 weeks paid leave.
  • 20-minute rest breaks (after six hours worked).
  • 11 hours of rest between working days.
  • 24 hours rest in one seven-day period.
  • 48 hours rest in a 14-day period.
  • Night workers are restricted to one eight-hour shift per 24-hour period.

We will explore the specifics around these below.

A woman drinking a hot drink on a break from work.

Maximum weekly working hours

By law, an employee cannot work more than 48 hours a week. This is calculated as an average over a 17 week period.

Can a worker opt out of this rule?

Workers aged 18 or over can choose to opt-out of this rule and work over 48 hours per week.

Employers can ask staff to opt-out of this limit but you cannot sack or treat a worker unfairly for deciding to say no. Doing so may lead to claims of unfair dismissal being raised against you. Workers can opt-out of this restriction for a certain period or indefinitely. However, this must always be completely voluntary.

How do workers opt out?

To opt-out, employees need to submit a written agreement.

The agreement must state their name and their decision to waive their right. The document must also be signed and dated. They may also add whether the decision is permanent or a temporary situation to help support the business over a busy period.

If the decision is temporary, staff must state how much notice they will give their employer before returning to their regular working hours. The minimum requirement for this is seven days notice however, the employee may give up to 3 months' notice if you have a written agreement.

Who can't choose to opt-out?

Certain workers are not permitted to work over the 48-hour maximum hours limit. Those unable to opt out are:

  • Airline staff.
  • Workers on boats or ships.
  • Workers in the road transport industry e.g delivery drivers with vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.
  • Staff who travel in and operate vehicles covered by EU rules on driving hours.
  • Security guards on vehicles transporting high-value goods.

Rules for workers under the age of 18

If you employ young workers (anyone between school leaving age and 18 years old) then you will need to abide by slightly different rules. Workers in this age bracket must have their shifts restricted to 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. There is no option for staff of this age to opt out of these restrictions.

Staff aged between 16 and 17 are also not permitted to work between midnight and 4 am. Employers cannot schedule them to work between 10 pm and 6 am unless this is stated in their employment.

Young workers can work between the hours of midnight and 4 am if they work in:

  • Agriculture
  • Hospitality or catering
  • Medical care
  • Retail
  • Postal services
  • Cultural, sporting, artistic or advertising services

In some exceptional circumstances, you can ask staff under the age of 18 to work at during restricted hours. This is only when an adult is not available to work, and they are needed to either:

  • Handle a sudden increase in demand
  • Maintain the continuity of a service or production

If this happens, you must give the young person a rest period the same length as their extended shift. You must also ensure that it does not have a negative effect on a young person’s education or training.

A healthcare worker talking to an elderly patient.

Exceptions to the working time directive

If you work in an industry that requires 24-hour staffing, then you do not have to abide by the maximum hours laid out in the working time directive. While there is flexibility around rest breaks, employees should still receive compensatory rest.

For example, if you work in the healthcare industry, you may have junior doctors who regularly need to work over this threshold to complete training. Some industries have their own rules that vary from those laid out in the working time directive. These include:

  • Workers in the armed forces or emergency services.
  • Security or surveillance staff.
  • Domestic servants in private households
  • Seafarers, sea fishermen or workers on vessels on inland waterways.
  • Roles where working time is not measured e.g managing executives with control over their schedule.

What happens if you breach these restrictions?

If you breach the restrictions laid out in the working time regulations, you may face several penalties.

Working time provisions are in place to protect the safety of workers. So, if an employee is injured because of an employer's negligence, then they may be able to sue for compensation in the civil courts.

Potential penalties include:

  1. A potentially unlimited criminal fine.
  2. Compensation for workers through an employment tribunal.

Rest breaks under the working time directive

Workers aged 18 or over are typically entitled to 3 types of legal breaks. at work. Rest breaks, daily rest and weekly rest.

Rest breaks

Employees have the right to one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during their working day if they work for more than 6 hours. This could be considered as their lunch or tea break

This rest break does not have to be paid. However, it will depend on what is stated in the employment contract.

Daily rest

Workers are entitled to 11 hours of rest between each working day. For example, if they finish working at 8 pm, they are not allowed to start work again until 7 am the next day.

Weekly rest

Weekly rest periods are calculated over a fortnightly or seven-day period. This means that workers have a right to either:

  1. An uninterrupted 24-hour break without any work each week
  2. An uninterrupted 48-hour break or two 24 hour breaks within without any work each fortnight

Employees may be entitled to more than this depending on what is stated in their employment contract.

Holidays and paid annual leave

The Working Time Regulations provides staff with the right to take paid leave. Full-time employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 days or 5.6 weeks. This can include public holidays.

The minimum statutory requirement for part-time workers is calculated via a pro rata approach.

Night workers

A night worker is categorised as an employee who regularly works at least 3 hours during the 'night period'. This is stated as the hours between 11 pm and 6 am.

A night worker will be subjected to further rules on top of regular maximum weekly working hours and rest break provisions.

Night workers must not work more than an average of 8 hours in a 24-hour period. While this average is also usually calculated over 17 weeks, it can be over a longer 52-week period. This is only if both the worker and employer have a collective agreement

Regular overtime is included in this average however, occasional overtime is not. Unlike daytime workers, night workers cannot opt-out of the 8 hours in a 24 hour period limit.

Getting expert advice on the Working Time Directive from Peninsula

Nothing is more important than the safety and welfare of your staff. That's why you need to ensure that all your workers are well-rested throughout their working week.

As an employer, it's your job to manage your staff's well-being. Fail to do so and you could find yourself facing costly legal claims due to a nasty and preventable accident.

Peninsula's team of experts are here to help you with all the rules surrounding working time restrictions. Whether you need advice about managing holidays or scheduling rest periods, we can help. To find out more, call 0800 028 2420.






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