Skip to content

Working Time Regulations: The Ultimate Guide

7 min read

There’s a raft of employment laws and legislation businesses need to comply with, and the Working Time Regulations 1998 is one of them. The Working Time Regulations UK (also known as the Working Time Directive or WTR for short) is a critical piece of legislation that governs your employees’ working hours. Organisations that don’t understand the regulations risk hefty penalties, an unhappy workforce and dents to business reputation.

That said, understanding the Working Time Regulations can be confusing. Today’s workforce has a mix of employees, from those working part-time, full-time or on shifts, to those working annual leave.

This article will help you understand the key details of the Working Time Regulations UK, the exceptions and how they impact your business. 

What are the Working Time Regulations?

The Working Time Regulations came into force in October 1998. They determine the working hours of employees over a working week and give workers the legal right to paid leave and specified rest breaks. They ensure that employers take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees and maintain a safe and supportive environment by giving people equal and fair working conditions. 

The legislation states that an adult employee must work no more than 48 hours a week over a reference period unless they opt out. Businesses usually average the reference period over 17 weeks. This means an employee can work a maximum of 48 hours one week as long as the average over 17 weeks is less than 48 hours a week.

Younger workers, i.e. those who are over the compulsory school leaving age and up to 18 years, are restricted to eight hours per day or 40 hours per week.

The Working Time Regulations also stipulate that employees are:

  • Not allowed to exceed an average of eight hours work in 24 hours (for night workers) 
  • Entitled to 11 hours of rest between working days
  • Allowed a 20 minute minimum rest break (defined below) if the working day is longer than six hours
  • Entitled to 28 days paid time off for full-time workers per year
  • Permitted a minimum of one day off per week.

Employees spend a considerable amount of time undertaking tasks that may not be directly related to work, so it’s easy to misinterpret the definition of a working week under the Working Time Regulations. Put simply, ‘working’ means any time spent on:

  • Job-related learning and development (on-site, off-site, or at home)
  • Travelling if you travel as part of your job (for example, news reporter or sales rep) 
  • Time that is treated as ‘working time’ under an employment contract
  • Time spent travelling between home and work at the start and end of the working day (if you don’t have a fixed work base)
  • Working lunches, for example, business lunches or lunch and learn sessions
  • Working abroad, such as attending a business conference or meeting
  • Paid overtime and unpaid overtime employees are asked to carry out by their employer. 

That said, there are some exceptions to be aware of. More on that later. 

The Working Time Regulations benefit you as an employer and your people. It can prevent employment tribunal cases by adhering to the maximum number of working hours–saving you money and stress. Plus, employees work in an environment where leaders value and appreciate them, maintaining a positive and supportive work culture for all.


How Many Hours Can You Work Without a Break?

Working for long periods of time without enough breaks or rest periods leads to fatigue and mistakes, often resulting in costly errors, accidents, or injuries. 

The Working Time Regulations sets out different rules on breaks depending on the age of your workforce. They also divide working breaks into three groups:

1. Rest breaks at work 

Tea breaks or lunch breaks are often a bone of contention for managers. Apply a fair approach to all employees by ensuring you comply with the Working Time Regulations.

Employees and workers who work longer than six hours are entitled to a minimum of 20 minutes rest break. How many hours you can work without a break is slightly less for young workers, who should receive at least 30 minutes for every six hours worked.  

2. Daily rest

This is the time between finishing one work period and starting the next. 

Employees should take a daily rest of not less than eleven consecutive hours in each 24-hour period. Again, this changes for young workers who are entitled to a rest period of not less than twelve consecutive hours in each 24-hour period.

3. Weekly rest 

Weekends or full days when employees don’t come into work. Adult workers are allowed an uninterrupted rest period of no less than 24 hours in each seven-day period.

However, the weekly rest period for young people is again slightly different. Young workers must take two days off each week. It’s important to note that weekly rest should be taken together and can’t be averaged over a given period of time. This means younger employees aren’t permitted to work extra hours one week and take more days off the following week.  

Exceptions to the Working Time Regulations UK

Age isn’t the only factor that influences Working Time Regulations; there are a number of other exceptions to be aware of.   

The law on working hours and rest periods doesn’t apply to self-employed people, senior directors of a company, and other similar positions who make strategic decisions. Nonetheless, they still need to rest to protect their own physical and mental wellbeing.

Certain job roles, such as trainee doctors, have a 26-week reference period, and offshore oil and gas workers have a 52-week reference period rather than the usual 17 weeks.

People in jobs that need ‘continuity of service or production’ are also subject to different rules. For example, prison officers or those in agriculture carry out work that can’t be stopped for legitimate reasons, making them exempt from rest periods regulations.

Employees with a disability may need additional rest breaks. In these circumstances, you must agree with more rest breaks if it’s classed as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010.

If you’re unsure whether employees fall into an exemption category, contact Acas for further advice.  


Can Employees Opt Out of the Working Time Regulations?

Put simply, yes. On average, employees can choose to work more than 48 hours a week if they’re over 18 years old. 

Businesses can also ask people to opt out of the Working Time Regulations. However, they cannot dismiss or unfairly treat someone if they choose not to. Staff members who choose to opt out can decide for how long, although employees must put this in writing to their employer.

Again, there are some exceptions to this. Employees and workers can’t opt of the 48-hour week if they:

  • Have a previous agreement that has been negotiated with a trade union 
  • Work on ships or aircraft, such as stewards or airline cabin crew
  • Work in the road transport industry, for example: the rail industry, HGV drivers or operate vehicles covered by EU rules on drivers’ hours such as bus conductors
  • Work as a security guard on a vehicle carrying high-value goods or passengers.

If employees haven’t opted out of the 48-hour-per-week limit and work more than an average of 48 hours per week during the reference period, it’s essential you give them time off so that the average doesn’t exceed 48 hours. 

Paid leave and Working Time Regulations

The amount of paid leave (PTO) an employee receives can vary depending on individual contractual agreements. Some employers grant more annual leave than others. 

That said, the minimum amount employees are entitled to is 28 days’ paid statutory annual leave. This may include the allocated bank holidays in the UK. Remember, this amount is reduced pro-rata for part-time employees. 

Stay compliant with Working Time Regulations and manage leave of absence and PTO easily with Factorial. “The software is simple to use and can be customised to your needs,” says Alicia Sapena, HR Director at Voicemod. “The team view is very useful, letting you quickly see who’s going to be absent in the coming weeks so you can make sure you’re prepared!”

Working Time Regulations Cases and Consequences 

Working over hours, lack of support and little time off can all negatively impact the health and well-being of employees. 

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 722,000 workers experienced a new case of work-related ill health in 2021. What’s more, 32.5 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health. People who are denied statutory rest breaks or holidays, in breach of the Working Time Regulations 1998, can lead to employee ill-health, workplace disputes and tribunal claims.

The employment appeal tribunal here shows an employee awarded £750 for the “discomfort and distress” caused by the employer’s refusal to allow rest breaks over 14 working days. 

Perhaps one of the most significant Working Time Regulations cases occurred in 2006. The European Court found the UK government in breach of the working time directive for “failing to meet the minimum requirements to improve workers’ living and working conditions by ensuring that they are entitled to minimum rest periods.”

Aside from the stress, time and effort associated with employment tribunals, organisations that spend considerable time and effort providing a great employee experience can reduce such claims. In fact, improving employee experience is identified as a key focus for HR leaders in 2023

Making sure your organisation complies with the Working Time Regulations can have a positive effect on employee experience by:

  • Creating a great work culture by giving employees accountability for their working hours
  • Prioritising employee well-being  by adhering to rest break periods
  • Valuing and respecting employees’ and workers’ time outside of work, promoting a better work-life harmony
  • Leading a tight ship! Following procedures consistently and fairly allows people to work effectively and efficiently.


Tips to Stay Compliant 

Stay compliant with the Working Time Regulations and create a workforce where people feel happy and content with these best practice tips.

Record hours worked

Managing and recording employee working hours can be time-consuming. Factorial’s Time Tracking software allows you to track your employees’ working hours, including any break periods.

Our digital solution gives you full visibility over hours worked so you can compare this to estimated hours and approve or reject employee timesheets to better manage employee productivity.

Stay up to date with regulations

Share accurate information about the Working Time Regulations with your workforce through regular company updates using Factorial’s communication and events feature. This ensures everyone is up to date and informed about their rights surrounding working hours and rest periods. 

Encourage breaks 

Support employee health and well-being by encouraging workers to take regular breaks and allow them to choose when they are taken. Give your workforce some level of autonomy and freedom as this will result in greater productivity in the long term. 

Ready to learn more? Find out how Factorial can support your business with our free 14-day trial.

Tracy Rawlinson is a freelance HR and tech writer at Rawlinson Writes. She has 30 years of HR and leadership experience and worked across local government, NHS, and the voluntary sector. She uses her experience to create content that truly resonates with a wide range of HR and tech audiences.

Related posts