Working time regulations

Regulations covering working hours apply to almost every business. Working time regulations aim to improve health and safety by controlling the hours employees work.

1. The working week

Workers have a statutory right to a maximum average working week of 48 hours

  • Hours worked are averaged out over a 17-week ‘reference period’. If the workers agree, the average can be calculated over successive 17-week periods, rather than on a rolling basis.
  • For some special cases, the reference period is 26 weeks.
  • The reference period may be extended to up to 52 weeks by agreement (eg where work fluctuates over the year).
  • The average must be calculated in a way which takes into account periods of leave, sickness and so on. For example, a worker who has been on holiday for half of a 17-week period cannot be forced to work 96 hours a week for the remainder.
  • For workers who have been employed for less than 17 weeks, the average is calculated from the time the worker started employment.

Time spent training, travelling or on standby may be included in working hours

  • Working hours includes any time when the worker is at the employer’s disposal and is expected to carry out activities or duties for the employer.
  • Work-related training is counted as part of the working week.
  • Travel time to and from work is not usually counted as working hours. However, travel as part of the employee’s duties is.
  • Travel to and from clients at the start and finish of a day is classed as working time where mobile workers have no fixed place of work (for example, care workers and installers or services in client’s homes).
  • Lunch breaks are not working hours (but a working lunch is).
  • Being on standby to be called out, if the employee is at the place of work, is counted as working hours. If the employee is on call and free to pursue leisure activities, it is not.
  • For transport workers ‘periods of availability’ known in advance do not count as working time.

Workers (at the moment) can voluntarily agree to disapply the 48-hour limit

  • There must be a suitable written agreement.
  • Workers cannot be forced to agree to disapply the limit. Pressuring workers to agree to disapply the limit is a breach of the regulations.
  • Workers can be offered overtime which takes them over the limit, but cannot be forced to work the overtime. Workers who regularly work overtime which takes them over the limit must have signed an opt-out agreement.
  • Employers may consult on and agree a system of annualised hours where the total number of hours worked does not exceed an average of 48 hours per week over a period of one year. This means that employees have to work their annual quota first before becoming entitled to overtime.
  • Transport workers are excluded from the opt-out arrangements but may work up to 60 hours in any one week, provided the 
48-hour average is not exceeded.

Most employees have the right to make a written request for flexible working

  • They must have at least 26 weeks’ service.
  • Once they have made a request, they are not entitled to make another until 12 months later.

2. Night work

Night workers should not exceed an average of eight hours in each 24-hour period

  • The rules apply to night workers who regularly work at least three hours during night time.
  • Night time is a period of at least seven hours which includes the hours from midnight to 5am. Unless otherwise agreed by the employer and workers, night time runs from 11pm to 6am.
  • Night working hours are averaged over 17 weeks. The averaging period can be extended by agreement or in specified circumstances.
  • There is no opt-out facility for night work regulations.

Extra restrictions apply for night work involving special hazards or strain

  • Night workers whose work involves special hazards or physical or mental strain are limited to eight hours for every 24-hour period (eg workers in the steel industry).
  • There are some exemptions in health and public services (eg nursing homes).
  • Night workers in the transport industry are limited to ten hours in 24.

Workers are entitled to a health assessment before being required to perform night work

  • 16-18 year olds should not normally be allowed to work nights.
  • Adolescent workers are entitled to a health and capacities assessment, which covers the worker’s physical and psychological abilities to do the work.
  • Assessments should be repeated regularly.

3. Breaks

Workers are entitled to a rest break in each shift lasting more than six hours

  • The break should be a minimum of 20 minutes.
  • Adolescent workers (above the minimum school leaving age, but under 18) are entitled to at least 30 minutes, if they work longer than four-and-a-half hours.
  • In special cases, rest breaks can be accumulated.

Workers are entitled to 11 hours’ consecutive rest between shifts each day

  • In specified circumstances, rest periods can be accumulated.
  • Adolescents are entitled to 12 hours’ consecutive rest each day.

Workers are entitled to one day off each week, or two days off every two weeks

  • In specified circumstances, days off can be accumulated and given later.
  • Adolescents are entitled to two days off per week.

Special cases

The maximum working hours apply to almost everyone (including transport and temporary workers). But the regulations allow for some derogations which modify the rules.

The maximum working week does not apply to all workers

  • Workers with unmeasured working time or who determine their own hours of work are excluded. This is a limited exclusion category but typically includes managing executives and family workers.
  • The genuinely self-employed are also excluded.

Work may not always allow the specified breaks

  • In specified circumstances, workers can receive compensatory rest when the demands of work do not allow the specified breaks.
  • These include activities involving the need for continuity of service (eg hospital services, utilities) and activities where there is a foreseeable surge in demand (eg tourism).
  • Compensatory rest should be given as soon as possible.

The rules do not apply in the case of unexpected and unpredictable occurrences

  • These must be beyond the employer’s control.

4. Holidays and leave

You are obliged by law to give everyone who works for you paid annual leave – unless they are genuinely self-employed.

The legal minimum for annual leave is 5.6 weeks per year

  • You cannot replace the holiday entitlement with pay in lieu, except when employment comes to an end.
  • There is no automatic entitlement to extra days off for bank holidays.

Workers will normally be paid for a holiday at the time it is taken

  • It is no longer possible to pay ‘rolled-up holiday pay’ (ie weekly pay which includes a payment equal to one week’s holiday pay accrual).
  • You should renegotiate any contracts that involve rolled-up holiday pay so that future holidays are paid at the time the leave is taken.

Workers are entitled to take leave from the start of their employment

  • You cannot impose a ‘service requirement’. For example, you cannot make new workers wait six months before they can use any of their holiday entitlement.
  • Leave must accrue at one-twelfth of the annual entitlement for each month worked, rounded to the nearest half day.

Part-time workers and most fixed-term employees have similar entitlements

  • Part-time workers’ entitlement is calculated pro rata. For example, if full-time, five-days-per-week workers get 28 days’ paid holiday a year, part-timers doing the equivalent of two days’ work a week will be entitled to 11.2 days’ leave.
  • Most fixed-term employees are entitled to no less favourable treatment. The exceptions include apprentices, work experience placements of less than one year and people on government training schemes.

You can exercise some control over the timing of employees’ holidays

  • You can require them to take some holiday at specified times. For example, if you close your whole factory at certain times of the year.
  • You can require them not to take holiday at some specified times – for example, at or around the time of your industry’s trade show.
  • You can specify how much holiday can be taken at any one time.
  • You must give appropriate notice ahead of each week you require people to take their holiday.

You need a system for deciding on holiday dates

  • Many businesses work on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Others allow senior people, or those with longer service, to choose their dates first.
  • Specify that you need reasonable notice on holiday dates – say, one month.
  • You might also state that no more than one or two staff in any one department should be off at the same time.

You need a policy on holiday rollovers

  • For example, you might specify that no more than one week’s unused holiday can be carried into the following year.
  • Workers must take at least four weeks holiday a year. If they take less, they cannot carry this over. So a worker entitled to 5.6 weeks’ holiday a year cannot carry over more than 1.6 weeks’ unused holiday.
  • There is an exception where an employee has been unable to take their holiday. For example, those who have been on maternity or long-term sick leave.

Paid or unpaid leave?

There are specific occasions where you are obliged to give staff time off.

Paid time off

You must give paid time off to employees who are:

  • carrying out duties or receiving training as a health and safety representative;
  • carrying out duties related to your business as a representative of a recognised trade union or receiving training as a trade union representative;
  • looking for a job or arranging training for future employment while being made redundant;
  • aged between 16 and 18 and training to NVQ Level 2 or equivalent (if they pass their 18th birthday, you must pay them until the training is complete);
  • carrying out duties or receiving training as an employee representative for consultation over collective redundancies or business transfers;
  • pregnant and attending ante-natal care.

Unpaid time off

  • undertaking public duties, such as acting as a magistrate, a member of a local authority, police or health authority or NHS trust, a member of the Volunteer Reserve Service within the Army (TA), Navy, or Royal Marines, or a member of an environmental agency;
  • taking part in recognised trade union activities that are not directly related to your business;
  • attending up to two ante-natal appointments with a pregnant partner.

Jury duty

  • You must not subject employees to any detriment for being summoned for jury service, but you can ask them to apply to have the jury service deferred if your business will be seriously harmed by their absence.
  • You do not have to pay an employee who is away on jury duty.

5. Paperwork

To avoid problems later on, make sure you have accurate and up-to-date records.

You may need to keep records to show that you are complying with the regulations

  • If you employ on a normal nine-to-five contract, you do not need to keep special records. Payslips that quote hours worked are sufficient.
  • You should keep records of night work and any related health assessments.
  • Records must be kept for at least two years.

You must keep a record of workers who have signed an opt-out agreement

  • Agreements should be in writing and signed by the worker.
  • Reference to an opt-out agreement should be made in the worker’s contract but should not be incorporated within the contract – it should be signed separately.
  • The agreement can be cancelled at any time, but the worker must give the employer seven days’ notice, or longer if agreed (up to three months).

Records must be available for inspection by the relevant authorities

  • See Enforcement.

6. Enforcement

The working time limits are enforced by the health and safety authorities

  • This is usually the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) for factories and the local authority for offices, shops and so on.

In practice, you are most likely to run into problems if an employee complains

  • Entitlements to rest periods, breaks and leave are enforced by employment tribunals and the county court system.

Penalties for breaches of the regulations can be high

  • Breaches of working time limits can lead to improvement notices being issued. Subsequent failure to comply can lead to unlimited fines and imprisonment.
  • Employment tribunals can order appropriate compensation payments (limited to £83,682 where there has been an unfair dismissal).



Employment law is complex and is changing rapidly. This factsheet reflects our understanding of the basic legal position as known at the last update. Obtain legal advice on your own specific circumstances and check whether any relevant rules have changed.

Expert quote

“Difficulties can arise where an employee’s wage or salary has a ‘built-in’ expectation of long hours and an employee suddenly refuses to work more than 48 hours. The obvious answer of a pro rata adjustment to pay may prove to be unlawful.” – Jim Givens, HR Management Solutions

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