Working hours: What you need to know

The secret’s out; working 9 to 5 isn’t the only way to make a living…

But you do need to make sure you’re not working more than you should. Luckily, employers are legally obligated to ensure their employees aren’t working more than the allowed maximum amount in any period – a legislation that’s there to protect workers and make sure that you don’t go overworked and underpaid.

To ensure you’re working within your rights (and to answer any questions you may have), here’s everything you need to know about working hours:


What are the maximum weekly working hours?

You’re allowed to work 48 hours a week, averaged out over 17 weeks.

If you’re under 18, this is lowered to 40 hours per week, or 8 hours per day.


Will I ever have to work more than the maximum weekly working hours?

In certain industries, you might be required to work more than 48 hours a week.

These include:

  • The armed forces, police, or emergency services
  • An industry where 24-hour staffing is needed (e.g. healthcare)
  • Security or surveillance
  • Seafaring or sea-fishing
  • If you’re self-employed and in control of your own hours

Contract of employment – key terms explained and your rights


Can I choose to work more than 48 hours a week?

If you want to work more than the maximum weekly working hours, you can opt out. This must be done in writing, and can be for a specified amount of time, or for an indefinite period.

However, you won’t be able to opt out if you work:

  • For an airline
  • On ships, boats, or in the road transport industry (e.g. delivery drivers, bus conductors)
  • As a security guard transporting high-value goods

Workers under the age of 18 are also not allowed to opt out.

Why does employment law exist?


How can I calculate my average weekly working hours?

To calculate how many hours you work per week, add up the number of hours worked in the reference period, and divide by the number of weeks.

A reference period is usually 17 weeks, but there are exceptions in some industries.

Trainee doctors, for example, have a 26 week reference period. You can find out what your reference period is by looking online or speaking to the accounts team at your organisation.

 Types of employment contracts


What is included in my working hours?

  • Time spent travelling, if travelling is part of your job (e.g. mobile therapist)
  • Job related training
  • Business lunches
  • Time spent on call, on-site
  • Time spent working abroad
  • Time spent on business calls
  • Paid overtime
  • Unpaid overtime (which you’ve been asked to do)
  • Travel between home and work for those who don’t have a fixed workplace (e.g. freelancers, contractors etc.)


What is not included in my average weekly working hours?

  • Time spent on call, outside of the workplace
  • Holidays (paid or unpaid)
  • Breaks when work is not done (lunch breaks)
  • Unpaid voluntary overtime
  • Travelling outside of working hours
  • Travel to and from work if you have a fixed workplace


How many breaks am I entitled to?

You’re legally required to take one 15 minute break after working 4 ½ hours. A 30 minute break is given after 6 hours, but this can include the original 15 minutes.

As they’re not considered working time, you won’t be paid for these breaks.


How many days off am I entitled to?

All employees are entitled to 5.6 weeks paid annual leave, including bank holidays.

This works out as 28 days a year for someone working 5 days a week. For part time, seasonal, or casual work, annual leave is worked out pro rata. For example, if you work 3 days a week, you’ll be entitled to 16.8 days a year (3 x 5.6).

Annual leave: What you need to know

Out of office email template


How can I change my working hours?

If you’ve worked for your employer for more than 26 weeks, you’re legally entitled to discuss the possibility of changing your working hours.

However, whether you’re able to is at the employer’s discretion. The best thing to do is to state the hours you want and your reasons, and then try to reach a compromise with your boss that ensures you’re both happy.

Or, if you work on a shift schedule, consider chatting with your colleagues to see if there is anyone who’ll swap shifts with you.

If you’ve tried all of the above and the answer is still no, you can ask for written justification of the decision. With this, and your own statement of why you believe you should be allowed a change of hours, you can take your case to an employment tribunal.

How to ask for flexible working hours

Flexi time: What you need to know



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