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What is the legal number of hours my employees can work each week?

What is the legal number of hours my employees can work each week?

In the UK, 48 hours is the maximum legal number of hours that your employees can work each week. This is calculated as an average, normally averaged over 17 weeks, and is commonly known as ‘directed working time’. 

However, there are exceptions to this, particularly for workers under the age of 18. Certain jobs also pose their own restrictions.

The working week

Adults over the age of 18 may work for a maximum of 48 hours each week. However, employees may be required to work more than 48 hours a week on average if they hold a job in the emergency services, the armed forces, in security, or any job where 24-hour staffing is required.

The 48-hour working week includes all directed time, such as job-related training, travelling (if it is a part of the job), working lunches and paid/unpaid overtime.  However, unpaid overtime that an employee has volunteered for is not counted as part of the 48-hour working week.

It is possible for employees to opt out of the 48-hour working week, therefore allowing them to work over the maximum legal number of hours. Although an employer can ask employees sign an opt-out agreement, employees cannot be fired or treated unfairly should they refuse to do so. Opting out of the 48-hour working week must be voluntary and in writing.

For health and safety reasons, there are certain jobs in which employees cannot opt out of the 48-hour working week, such as airline staff, delivery drivers etc. Please check for a complete list.

Note: Employees under the age of 18 cannot work more than 8 hours a day, or 40 hours a week. This cannot be averaged out over any period of time, and employees under 18 cannot opt out of this either.

Time between shifts

Employees are legally entitled to 11 hours of rest between working days. This amounts to their ‘daily rest’.

In terms of ‘weekly rest’, employees are legally entitled to 24 hours off every 7 working days, or 48 hours off every 14 working days. There are tighter restrictions in place for employees working a night shift, as they cannot work for more than eight hours in each 24-hour period.

The UK operates under the European Working Time Directive to ensure that employees get sufficient rest between shifts. Therefore, even if your employees have agreed to opt out of the 48-hour working week, they must still be allowed adequate time for rest between shifts. This is also the case for part-time workers, so the hours worked for another employer must also be taken into account.

There are exceptions for certain jobs, such as the armed forces, emergency services, mobile jobs, and jobs with no set hours.

Note: Employees under the age of 18 must have at least 12 consecutive hours of rest between working days, and a weekly rest of 48 hours.

Taking breaks

Employees are entitled to one 20-minute break in a working day if they work more than 6 hours that day. However, it is entirely at the employer’s discretion if this break is paid or not.

The employer can state when such rest breaks take place, so long as the break is uninterrupted, and it is taken in the middle of the shift. Employees are entitled to spend their break away from their work, and they cannot be asked to return to work before their break is finished.

Employees are not legally entitled to other breaks, such as smoking breaks. Other breaks are at the employer’s discretion.

Once again, certain jobs are exempt from the required rest breaks, such as the armed forces, mobile jobs, and jobs with no set hours.

Note: Employees under the age of 18 are entitled to a 30-minute break if they are working more than 4.5 hours that day.

David Tattersall
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