Employees working hours

Your business has legal responsibilities with regard to employees’ working hours. This guide sets out the requirements and best practice for getting the most from your staff.


9 min read

1. Overview

This guide will help you understand the maximum hours your employees can work, the different types of part time work and the regulations governing night work, Sunday work and overtime.

It also covers job sharing, changing an employees contracted hours and remuneration for out of hours work.

2. Working hours in a week

Unless the worker has an opt out agreement, or an exemption applies, workers aged 18 or over cannot be forced to work for more than 48 hours a week on average. The average is calculated by adding up all the working time over the reference period.

Calculating average hours

Workers' hours are usually calculated as an average over 17 weeks. In this, make sure you include:

  • work-related training
  • travel as part of a worker's duties
  • working lunches

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

Through a workforce or collective agreement, your workers can agree to a longer period over which to average their working hours - up to 52 weeks.

Opting out

By signing a written agreement, most workers can agree to work longer than the 48-hour limit. They can cancel this opt-out agreement whenever they want as long as they give their employer at least seven days' notice.

Most workers in the road transport industry cannot 'opt-out' of the weekly working time limits. There are similar restrictions for workers on ships and boats, airline staff and some security staff.

Rest breaks

Your workers are entitled to regular breaks in the working day. Workers aged 18 or over should be offered a minimum 20-minute break for every shift lasting more than six hours.

You can decide when your workers take their break, but it mustn't be at the beginning or end of a shift. You must also allow your workers any breaks they need as a result of any health condition or disability.

Rest periods between working days

Your workers are entitled to regular rest periods between working days - in addition to any holiday entitlement.

Workers aged 18 and over should have a minimum 11 hours' rest between each working day, and shouldn't be forced to work more than six days in every seven, or 12 days in every 14.

Exceptions can be made for:

  • busy periods
  • emergencies
  • people working away from home

In these cases, rest periods can be compensated for and taken later.

When organising rest periods you should also consider the maximum average working week which is normally 48 hours.

Young workers

Workers aged 16 and 17 can't normally work more than 8 hours per day, or 40 hours per week. There is also no opt-out for young workers, so they can't work longer hours, even if they want to.

Young workers are usually entitled to a 30 minute rest break if they work more than four and a half hours, and two days off every week.


Your workers may be covered by other rules if your business is in one of the following sectors:

  • air, road, or sea transport
  • inland waterways and lakes
  • sea fishing

3. Part-time working

The most obvious form of part-time working is where the worker simply works fewer than the normal basic full-time hours.

There are other part-time working options that may suit your business needs:

  • Term-time-only workers tend to be parents who work during term time and take paid or unpaid leave during school holidays
  • Job-sharing is where two or more people share the responsibilities, pay and benefits of a full-time job

Managing part-time workers

You need to make sure that your part-time workers receive all staff communications and that they are informed of all major decisions affecting their jobs.

This may require you to contact - by phone, email or text message - those part-time workers who are not in the workplace when you send out messages for the first time.

You could consider setting core hours during the week when all staff will be present. This is a time when you can hold meetings and make important decisions.

If there isn't a time when all workers are in the workplace, vary the times of key meetings so everyone can attend at least some of the time. Ensure that the outcomes of meetings are shared with workers who were not there.

To help you manage your part-time workers more easily, try to find out if they:

  • have any flexibility to work additional hours on major projects or to attend meetings outside their scheduled hours
  • are happy for you to contact them outside of their normal working hours

Make sure that any part-time staff have opportunities to attend training courses offered to full-time staff.

Part-time workers' rights

All workers have basic employment protection rights - regardless of whether they work full or part time.

Part-time workers must be treated equally to comparable full-time workers who work for the same employer and do similar work under the same type of employment contract.

Job sharing

Job-sharing is when two people share the responsibility, pay and benefits of a full-time job.

The job sharers share the pay and benefits in proportion to the hours each works. They may work split days, split weeks or alternate weeks, or their hours may overlap.

As an employer, the benefits of job-sharing include:

  • retention of valued workers who can no longer work full time and may otherwise leave
  • a wider range of skills, experience, views and ideas
  • increased flexibility to meet peaks in demand
  • greater continuity when one worker is sick or on holiday
  • a wider pool from which to recruit
  • increased commitment and loyalty
  • a potential reduction in absenteeism, sickness and stress

4. Asking workers to change their hours

A change to a worker's working hours amounts to a change to their terms and conditions of employment. As such, you need them to agree to it.

Before requesting such a change, you should look at the individual circumstances of the worker. For example, a change from part-time to full-time working may affect their caring arrangements, while a reduction in hours may cause them financial problems.

You should notify the worker of your proposed changes as soon as possible and explain to them why they are necessary. If you do this, they may be more willing to agree to your plans.

You should then consult with the worker and/or their representatives to reach an agreement.

If the worker still refuses to agree to your proposed change in hours, you could terminate the whole contract and offer employment on the revised terms.

However, this amounts to a dismissal - and could potentially be unfair. Therefore, you need to ensure that you:

  • follow a fair and reasonable procedure when dismissing the worker
  • terminate the contract by giving the worker proper notice

5. Sunday and night working

Sunday working

If a worker is required to work on Sundays, this should be agreed with them and put in writing, either in their employment contract or written statement of terms and conditions.

There are different rules for shop and betting shop workers. In Scotland, shop and betting shop workers who started their employment with you before 6 April 2004 don't have to work on Sundays. Shop and betting shop workers who began their employment after this date can opt out of Sunday working by giving 3 months' notice.

Night working

Night time working hours are usually between 11pm and 6am, though this can be slightly varied by agreement between you and your workers. A night worker is someone who regularly works for at least three hours during this period.

In general, night workers:

  • should not work more than an average of eight hours in a 24-hour period, averaged over a reference period of 17 weeks
  • can't opt out from this limit, although in certain situations you can average night work over a longer reference period than 17 weeks
  • must be offered a free health assessment before they start working nights and on a regular basis after that (a follow-up examination by a health professional should be provided where necessary)

When devising your health questionnaire, make sure you ask a qualified health professional for advice.

Terms and conditions

Assess the health and safety implications of night working - for instance, your fire-evacuation procedure may need to be changed at night. Also, you may need to tighten your security arrangements.

If you employ people outside normal working hours it is a good idea to reward them for working antisocial hours. You're not required by law to do this, but it can help with staff recruitment and retention and can improve business productivity. Common ways to reward night and Sunday workers include paying them time-and-a-half or double time, or giving them extra leave.

Other matters of good practice when dealing with night and Sunday working include:

  • giving employees at least one weekend off in three
  • providing hygienic food and refreshment facilities as local facilities could be shut
  • giving reasonable notice periods when changing employees' shift patterns and being careful not to breach their contracts
  • showing an interest in shift workers by visiting them while they work
  • considering whether the number of night workers requires specific supervision or management to help maintain discipline and productivity
  • considering supplying transport to the local station, eg a minibus
  • providing equal opportunities for training, promotion and involvement in staff consultations

Take your employees' preferences into account as far as possible when organising shift work. Workers will be happier if they can have some say in how their schedule is arranged.

6. Managing overtime

If you expect employees to work regular overtime, it's a good idea to state this clearly in the employee's contract, together with:

  • whether overtime is compulsory or voluntary
  • rates of overtime pay
  • when overtime becomes payable
  • any notice arrangements for overtime working
  • the authorisation process, eg overtime must be agreed in advance and in writing by the employee's manager

Overtime payment rates

Overtime rates are for you to agree with your employees. There are no minimum statutory levels but rates may be fixed by an industry-wide agreement.

It's important to define the point at which overtime becomes payable.

Employees who are called out from home to perform urgent duties normally receive call-out allowances or guaranteed hours at overtime rates. As call out is likely to occur at nights, weekends or statutory holidays, it's usually paid at the relevant overtime rate.

Usually employees are paid for being on standby ready to respond to any call outs. You may decide to pay at different rates for time on standby or pay a separate fixed allowance.

Time off in lieu

An alternative to paying for overtime is to offer time off in lieu (TOIL). The practice is particularly common among higher-paid staff who work overtime.

Workers must agree to TOIL. They must also arrange to take it at a time that is convenient for the employer.

As with all forms of reward for overtime, TOIL needs careful management and the ground rules should be set out clearly.

To find out more about your obligations as an emloyer, read our guide Giving employees time off work.

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