Law guide: Workplace

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Working time limits

Working time limits

The rights set out in this section apply to workers (individuals contracted to provide work or services on a full-time, part-time or fixed-term basis). This includes employees, but not self-employed staff. For more information, see Employees, workers and the self-employed.

Your normal working hours should be set out in your contract of employment. Your employer can't require you to work more than 48 hours a week on average. You can opt out of this protection and some sectors have their own rules regarding working time which differ from the general position.

Contractual hours

Your terms of employment should say what hours and working patterns are involved in your job. You might not have a written contract, but workers in England, Wales and Scotland must be given written particulars of their main terms and conditions - including the working hours - by the time they start working for an employer. Employees in Northern Ireland must receive it within 2 months.

The 48-hour week

Most workers should not have to work more than an average of 48 hours each week, according to the Working Time Regulations. The Regulations also give you rights to paid holiday, rest breaks and limits on night work.

Your average working hours are calculated over a 17-week period. You can work more than 48 hours in one week as long as the average is less than 48.

There are special rules for some workers, such as young workers, trainee doctors and mobile workers in the transport industry.

Young workers

If you are under 18 and over the school leaving age, you are classed as a young worker.

In England you are under school leaving age until the end of the summer term of the school year in which you turn 16.

In Scotland, you are under school leaving age until the last date in May or the first day of the Christmas holidays / 21st December depending on when your 16th birthday is.

In Northern Ireland you can leave school on the 30th June if you are 16 on or before 1st July in that year.

Young workers cannot usually be made to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. These hours can't be averaged over a longer period. There are some exceptions to these rules.

What counts as work?

As well as carrying out your normal duties, your working week includes:

  • Job-related training
  • Job-related travelling time (for example, if you're a sales rep)
  • Working lunches
  • Time spent working abroad, if you work for a UK-based company
  • Paid and some unpaid overtime
  • Time spent 'on-call' at the workplace

What doesn't count as work?

Your working week does not include:

  • Breaks when no work is done, such as lunch breaks
  • Normal travel to and from work
  • Time when you're 'on call' away from the workplace
  • Evening and day-release classes
  • Travelling outside of normal working hours
  • Unpaid overtime where you volunteer to do so, for example, staying late to finish something off
  • Paid or unpaid holiday
  • Sick leave
  • Maternity, paternity and adoption leave

Opting out of the 48-hour week

If you are 18 or over and wish to work more than 48 hours a week, you can choose to opt out of the 48-hour limit. This must be voluntary and in writing. It can't be an agreement with the whole workforce and you shouldn't be sacked or subjected to a detriment (for example, refused promotion or overtime) for refusing to sign an opt-out. Note that dismissal of an employee for refusing to sign an opt out agreement is automatically unfair.

If you sign an opt-out, you have the right to cancel this agreement at any time by giving between one week and three months' notice. You can agree this notice period with your employer when you sign the opt-out. You can cancel an opt-out even if it's part of a contract you've signed.

If you work in certain sectors, you can't opt out of the 48-hour limit to your working week.

Who's not covered by the regulations?

Your working week is not covered by the Working Time Regulations if you work in the following areas:

  • Jobs where you can choose freely how long you will work e.g. a managing executive
  • The armed forces, emergency services and police are excluded in some circumstances
  • Domestic servants in private houses

Trainee doctors and transport workers

There are also special rules for doctors in training and mobile workers in the transport industry (whether road, rail, air or sea).

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