Article reference: UK-IA-EMP10

Working Time Regulations: a short guide


This article is based on the 1998 Working Time Regulations. They have been updated numerous times since 1998. This article includes the latest updates.

The article will be useful to both employers and employees. It states what both parties must do to comply with the regulations, as well as ways of redress. However, more bad news may be on the way ( at March 2013).  The "Opt-out" provisions are under discussion. They are most likely to be removed. When they will be removed is not clear.

Working time regulations are in place to protect workers from being over-worked. If you are self-employed, running your own business and are free to work for different clients and customers, these regulations do not apply to you.

Who is a worker?

The Regulations refer constantly to “workers”. A worker is someone who has a contract of employment, is paid a regular salary or wage and works for an organisation, business or individual. Trainees are also workers. The most fundamental rule is that the maximum time a worker can work per week is 48 hours.

Work includes traveling as part of the job, working lunches and job-related training.

Working time does not include traveling between home and work, lunch breaks, evening classes or day-release courses.


A worker may agree to work more than 48 hours a week. He does this by signing an opt-out agreement which can be cancelled at any time. The agreement must state how much notice is needed to cancel the agreement, which can be up to three months but a minimum of seven days. All Net Lawman contracts of employment provide for the opt-out in the contract. It may still be cancelled by the employee at any time, but at least it is in place when the new employee starts work - unless you decide to delete it.

How is the average weekly working time calculated?

The number of hours worked each week should be averaged out over the 'reference period'. This period is 17 weeks or however long a worker has been working for you if this is less than 17 weeks. Remember not to include paid annual leave, maternity leave, or sick pay in the calculations.

What should an employer do about a worker with a second job?

If a worker is known to have a second job, an employer should agree an opt-out with the worker if the total time worked is in excess of 48 hours a week. If the opt-out is not agreed, both employers are in breach of the law.

More generally, employers may wish to make an enquiry of their workforce about any additional employment. However, if a worker does not tell an employer about other employment and the employer has no reason to suspect that the worker has another job, it is extremely unlikely that the employer would be found not to have complied.

Most Net Lawman contracts of employment either restrict the employee from engaging in a second job or oblige him to ask for permission from his employer to that extra work.

Working at Night

A night worker is someone who normally works at least three hours at night. Night time is between 11pm and 6am, although workers and employers may agree to vary this.

Night workers should not work more than eight hours daily on average, not including overtime.

Special hazards - Where a night worker's work involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain, there is an absolute limit of eight hours on the worker's working time each day - this is not an average.

Work will involve a special hazard if it is identified:

  • by agreement between an employer and workers in a collective agreement or workforce agreement; or
  • as posing a significant risk by a risk assessment which an employer has conducted under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992.

Workers’ health and fitness for night work

Health Assessments for Night Workers - If you are an employer you must offer night workers a free health assessment before they start working and then annually whilst working.

A health assessment can be made up of two parts: a questionnaire and a medical examination. The latter is only necessary if the employer has doubts about the worker's fitness for night work.

Employers should get help from a suitably qualified health professional when devising and assessing the questionnaire. This could be from a doctor or nurse who understands how night working might affect health.

New and expectant mothers should be given special consideration.

Special consideration should be given to young workers'' suitability for night work, taking account of their physique, maturity and experience.

As an employer it is suggested you take two steps to be sure workers are fit to work nights.

  • You ask each worker to fill in a questionnaire which asks specific questions about his health which are relevant to the type of night work he will be doing;
  • If you are not certain that he is fit for night work following the questionnaire results, you ask him to have a medical examination.

Health assessments must be offered before someone starts working nights. They should then be repeated on a regular basis afterwards.

What to do if a worker is unfit for night work?

If a qualified health professional advises that a night worker is suffering from health problems caused by or made worse by working at night, the worker has a right to be transferred, if possible, to suitable day work.

Daily Rest - A worker is entitled to a rest period of 11 uninterrupted hours between each working day.

Weekly Rest - A worker is entitled to one whole day off a week. Days off can be averaged over a two-week period, meaning workers can take two days off a fortnight. Days off are taken in addition to paid annual leave.

Special Rules for Young Workers

A young worker is someone who is above the minimum school leaving age but under 18.

Daily rest - A young worker is entitled to 12 uninterrupted hours in each 24-hour period in which they work. The rest may be interrupted if periods of work are split up over the day or do not last long.

A young worker's entitlement to daily rest can be reduced or excluded in exceptional circumstances only. Where this occurs, the young worker should receive compensatory rest within 3 weeks.

Weekly rest - Young workers are entitled to two days off each week. This cannot be averaged over a two-week period.

If the nature of the job makes it unavoidable, a young worker's weekly time off can be reduced to 36 hours.

Rest Breaks at Work

If a worker is required to work for more than six hours at a stretch, he or she is entitled to a rest break of 20 minutes.

The break should be taken during the six-hour period and not at the beginning or end of it. The exact time the breaks are taken is up to the employer to decide.

Special Rules for Young Workers

Different rules apply to young workers. If a young worker is required to work for more than four and a half hours at a stretch, he or she is entitled to a rest break of 30 minutes.

A young worker's entitlement to rest breaks can be changed or excluded only in exceptional circumstances.

If a young worker is working for more than one employer, the time he or she is working for each one should be added together to see if they are entitled to a rest break.

A young worker's entitlement to breaks can be changed or not taken in exceptional circumstances only. Where this occurs, the young worker should receive compensatory rest within 3 weeks.

Exceptions to the Working time regulations

There are four classes of exceptions where some of the rules may not apply. These are agreements and special circumstances. We will look at each.


Employers and workers can agree that the night work limits, rights to rest periods and rest breaks may be varied, with the workers receiving "compensatory rest". They may also agree to extend the reference period for the working time limits up to 52 weeks.

These agreements can be made by ''collective agreement'' (between the employer and an independent trade union) or a ''workforce agreement''. If a worker has any part of their conditions determined by a collective agreement they can not be subject to a workforce agreement.

A workforce agreement is made with elected representatives of the workforce in most cases.

A workforce agreement can apply to the whole workforce or to a group of workers. To be valid, a workforce agreement must:

  • Be in writing;
  • have been circulated in draft to all workers to whom it applies together with the guidance to assist their understanding of it;
  • he signed before it comes into effect either;
  • by all the representatives of the members of the workforce or group of workers; or
  • if there are 20 workers or fewer employed by a company, either by all representatives of a workforce or by a majority of the workforce?
  • have effect for no more than five years.

Special circumstances

The night work limits (including the limit for special hazards), rights to rest periods and rest breaks do not apply where:

  • a worker works far away from where he or she lives and wants to work longer hours over fewer days to complete a task more quickly. Or he or she constantly has to work in different places making it difficult to work to a set pattern;
  • the work involves security or surveillance to protect property or individuals;
  • the job requires round-the-clock staffing such as hospitals, residential institutions, prisons, media production companies, public utilities or industries where work cannot be interrupted;
  • there are busy peak periods, such as may apply seasonally in agriculture, retail, tourism and postal services;
  • an emergency occurs or something unusual or unforeseen happens. In these cases, the reference period for the weekly working time limit is extended from 17 to 26 weeks. In addition workers are entitled to "compensatory rest".

What is compensatory rest?

"Compensatory rest" is a period of rest the same length as the period of rest, or part of a period of rest, that a worker has missed.

The regulations give all workers a right to 90 hours of rest in a week. This is the total of your entitlement to daily and weekly rest periods. The exceptions allow you to take rest in a different pattern to that set out in the regulations.

The principle is that everyone gets his or her entitlement of 90 hours rest a week on average, although some rest may come slightly later than normal.

Unmeasured working time

The regulations, apart from the entitlement to paid annual leave, do not apply if a worker can decide how long he or she works.

A test, set out in the regulations, states that a worker falls into this category if "the duration of his working time is not measured or predetermined, or can be determined by the worker himself".

An employer needs to consider whether a worker passes this test. Workers such as senior managers, who can decide when to do their work, and how long they work, are likely to pass the test. Those without this freedom to choose are not.

Partly unmeasured working time

There is an exception for workers who have an element of their working time pre-determined, but otherwise decide how long they actually work.

Here is the test:

  • The specific characteristics of the activity are such that, without being required o do so by the employer;
  • the worker may also do work [in addition to that which is measured or pre-determined] the duration of which is not measured or pre-determined or can be determined by the worker himself.

Any time spent on such additional work will not count as working time towards the weekly working time or night work limits. Simply put, additional hours which the worker chooses to do without being required to by his employer do not count as working time; therefore, this exception is restricted to those that have the capacity to choose how long they work. The key factor for this exception is worker choice without detriment.

Some or none of a worker's working time may meet the test. Any working time that does meet it will not count towards the 48-hour weekly working time limit or the night work limits.

This exception does not apply to:

Working time which is hourly paid;

  • Prescribed hours of work;
  • Situations where the worker works under close supervision;
  • Any time where a worker is expressly required to work, for example attendance of meetings;
  • Any time a worker is implicitly required to work, for example because of the loading or requirements of the job or because of possible detriment if the worker refuses.

How to avoid the problems which could arise from the regulations

The obvious first step is to set your contracts of employment in order. Your obligations are a matter of law. What is important is that you spell out the obligations of your employee to help you to comply.

Here are Net Lawman employment contracts.

Please note that the information provided on this page:

  • Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
  • Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
  • Does not create a contractual relationship;
  • Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
Contact us about this article

We would love to hear what you think about this article and how we could improve it. Please do let us know. However, we shan't be able to reply to your specific questions. If you have a question about a document, please contact us.

Leave feedback about this page