Working Hours | Working Time Regulations

working hours
In today's '24/7' society, many of us work extremely long hours as part of our job. However, most employees are not fully aware of just how many hours they are or are not allowed to work as part of UK regulations.

'Working Time Regulations' exist to ensure that employees are not overworked and that employers do not take advantage of their staff in order to cover their business priorities - these regulations are set by the Government and are enforceable by law.
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Adult workers in the UK cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average. The 'on average' part of this regulation is the important part, as it is not always as straightforward as it may first seem. It is entirely legal to work more than 48 hours in one week; in fact, this is often the case for people who are usually engaged in lots of meetings, conferences or long shifts and is a necessary evil of many jobs.

However, if your working hours amount to an average of 48 hours over the course of a 17 week period, this is where the law changes. Your employer is then not allowed to insist that you work these hours and is obligated to either alter your working week or, as is most common, ask you if you would like to 'opt out' of the 48 hour rule (see below).

Are all working weeks covered by the Working Time Regulations?

The short answer to this is no. Not everybody is protected by the working time regulations and many jobs are excluded from the legislation. These include:
  • Managing Directors who are able to freely choose how long to work
  • Armed Forces, Emergency Services and Police
  • Domestic Servants (in private houses)
  • Sea Transport Workers or Mobile Workers (inland waterways)

What counts as a 'working week'?

As well as the day to day duties involved in your regular working day, there are many activities that you may undertake as part of your job, which are classed as 'work' and therefore subject to the 48 hour rule. These include:
  • On the job training
  • Job-related training
  • Job-related travelling time (for example, if you work as a sales rep)
  • Working / 'business' lunches
  • Time spent working abroad
  • Paid and some unpaid overtime
  • Time 'on call' at your place of work
Activities that unfortunately do not count as part of your working week are:
  • Lunch breaks and other rest breaks where no work is undertaken
  • Normal travel to and from work
  • Being 'on call' away from the workplace
  • Training that is not related to work, i.e. evening classes
  • Travelling outside of normal working hours (for example after a late meeting)
  • Unpaid overtime that you have offered to do, rather than being asked to do by your employer
  • Paid or unpaid holiday

Opting out of the 48 hour working week

If you are happy to work over 48 hours a week, then you are able to sign an agreement which states this. Remember, you cannot be forced to sign such an agreement - it has to be entirely of your own choice and you must agree to it voluntarily. If a colleague who performs the same job role as you has opted out of the 48 hour week, this does not been that you are obligated to do the same. The choice must be individual and your employer is not allowed to insist that the workforce as a whole must work over 48 hours a week.

If you do decided to sign an opt-out agreement, whether temporarily in order to fulfil a big project at work, or indefinitely, remember that you can change your mind at any time and cancel the agreement to suit yourself. You must however, give your employer at least seven days notice (or whatever notice had been previously agreed in writing).

Likewise, your employer cannot force you to cancel your opt-out agreement - this is a decision that only the employee can make. It is against the law for employers to discriminate against you if you do not want to sign an opt out agreement. This would include being unfairly treated or overlooked for promotion as a result of this.

What breaks are employees entitled to as part of the working week?

The Working Time Regulations also include laws about how many breaks employees are entitled to according to the amount of hours they are contracted to work. These rules exist in order to reduce any risks to health and safety that can occur as a result of long hours and it is essential that employers ensure their staff take the correct amount of rest breaks.

Some companies offer staff additional breaks on top of those required by law. There are many reasons for this, the most common reasons being related to manual labour or job roles that involve an element of risk due to the operation of machinery. Information about whether this is the case for your company should be included in your contract of employment.

Adult workers are legally entitled to a 20 minute rest break for days that involve more than six consecutive working hours. This break can be included within a lunch break or as a 'stand alone' break.

It is also worth noting that not all breaks will be paid for, and again, it is important to check your contract to see whether this applies to you.

In addition to the rest breaks you are entitled to during one working day, all adult workers also have the right to a break of at least 11 hours between two working days (i.e. overnight). So if you finish work at 8pm one day, you should not start work until 7am the next day - this is known as your 'daily rest'.

Another form of rest is known as the 'weekly rest' (i.e. the weekend), which gives workers the right to an uninterrupted 24 hours free from work each week or an uninterrupted 48 hours free from work every fortnight.
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