Working Time Regulations and the 48 hour week

Working Time Regulations 1998

The Working Time Regulations came into force on 1 October 1998 to implement the European Union Directive Council Direction 93/104 EC. They set the maximum weekly working time, patterns of work and holidays, plus the daily and weekly rest periods. They also cover the health and working hours of night workers.

The regulations apply to most part-time and full-time workers, including the majority of agency workers and freelancers, although certain categories of workers are excluded (see below). They have since been amended to include:

  • non-mobile workers in road, sea, inland waterways and lake transport;
  • workers in the railway and offshore oil and gas sectors;
  • workers in aviation who are not covered by the Civil Aviation (Working Time) Regulations 2004;
  • junior doctors.


The following jobs are not included within the working week legislation:

  • where 24-hour staffing is required;
  • in the armed forces, emergency services or police;
  • in security and surveillance;
  • as a domestic servant in a private household;
  • as a seafarer, sea-fisherman or worker on vessels on inland waterways;
  • where working time is not measured and you’re in control, eg, you’re a managing executive with control over your decisions.

What is meant by work?

The following will be included within the definition of work:

  • job-related training;
  • job-related travelling time (eg, sales representatives);
  • working lunches;
  • time spent ‘on call’ at the workplace counts as working time, while time spent ‘on call’ when away from the workplace and not carrying out duties, is not;
  • time spent working away from home, but not spent resting at the end of the working day, even if the worker is required to stay away from home overnight;
  • time spent working outside of the UK if you work for a UK business;
  • if the worker is a home worker or carries out work at home with the prior agreement of the employer, then this is likely to count as working time.
  • overtime – paid or unpaid. Voluntary overtime does not count; for example, if you stay a little late to fully complete a task. It must be agreed overtime;
  • the time those with no fixed place of work – ie, mobile workers – spend travelling between home and their first and last places of work each day counts as ‘working time’

Key provisions

The Working Time Regulations generally provide rights to:

  • a limit of an average 48 hours a week a worker can be required to work (though workers may choose to work longer by ‘opting out’ – see below). The average working week is calculated by taking the average over a 17-week reference period;
  • paid annual leave of 5.6 weeks’ a year;
  • 11 consecutive hours’ rest in any 24-hour period;
  • a 20-minute rest break if the working day is longer than six hours;
  • one day off each week;
  • a limit on the normal working hours of night workers to an average eight hours in any 24-hour period, and an entitlement for night workers to receive regular health assessments.

Workers under 18

Younger workers (aged 16-17) are only allowed to work eight hours per day and 40 hours per week. They must be given a rest break of 30 minutes if their work lasts more than 4.5 hours and they are also entitled to two days off each week.

Opting out of the 48-hour week

This only applies to workers who are over 18 and they must have chosen to do so, ie, they must make a voluntary decision to opt out and this must be evidenced in writing.

There cannot be an agreement in place which makes it mandatory for all workers across an entire workforce to work more than the 48-hour week as it has to be a voluntary decision by each individual worker. Workers who do not wish to opt out cannot be unfairly treated because of their decision by not getting a promotion or even getting sacked. This would amount to unfair dismissal.

Can an opt-out agreement be cancelled once in place?

There is a right of cancellation at any time and all that needs to be given is between one week and three months notice. Often the agreement between the employer and employee will specify how much notice needs to be given. If this is not the case one week will suffice.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.