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Working time limits (the 48-hour week)

Your normal working hours should be set out in your contract of employment. Unless you choose to, or you work in a sector with its own special rules, you should not have to work more than an average of 48 hours a week.

Contractual hours

Your terms of employment should say what hours and working patterns are involved in your job. You might not have a written contract, but employees must be given written particulars of their main terms and conditions - including the working hours - within two months of starting.

The 48-hour week

Most workers should not have to work more than an average of 48 hours a week, according to the Working Time Regulations. The Regulations also give you rights to paid holiday, rest breaks and limits on night work.

Your average working hours are calculated over a 17 - week period. You can work more than 48 hours in one week as long as the average is less than 48.

There are special rules for some workers, like young workers and mobile workers in the transport industry.

Since 1 August 2009 if you are a trainee doctor the 48-hour maximum working hours applies to you as well.

Days off from work and rest breaks

All adult workers are entitled to one day off a week. Days off can be averaged over a two-week period, meaning you are entitled to two days off a fortnight.

Adult workers are entitled to a rest break of 20 minutes if you have to work more than six hours at a stretch.

Young workers

If you are under 18 and over school leaving age (you are under school leaving age until the end of the summer term of the school year in which you turn 16) you are classed as a young worker. Young workers cannot usually be made to work more that eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. These hours can't be averaged over a longer period. There are some exceptions to these rules.

What counts as work?

As well as carrying out your normal duties, your working week includes:

  • job-related training
  • job-related travelling time (for example, if you're a sales rep)
  • working lunches
  • time spent working abroad
  • paid and some unpaid overtime
  • time spent 'on-call' at the workplace

Night work

You are a night worker if you work at least three hours during night time on a regular basis. Night time for work purposes is between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am, unless you and your employer have agreed on a different definition.

If you occasionally work at night you would not count as a night worker.

As a night worker, you should not work more than an average of eight hours in each 24-hour period - excluding overtime. You cannot opt out of this night working limit.

Working two different jobs

If you work for more than one employer, the amount of combined hours you work shouldn't exceed the 48 hour average limit.

If you work two jobs you could either:

  • consider signing an opt-out agreement with your employers if your total time worked is over 48 hours
  • reduce your hours to meet the 48-hour limit

What does not count as work?

Your working week does not include:

  • breaks when no work is done, such as lunch breaks
  • normal travel to and from work
  • time when you're 'on call' away from the workplace
  • evening and day-release classes
  • travelling outside of normal working hours
  • unpaid overtime where you volunteer to do so, for example, staying late to finish something off
  • paid or unpaid holiday
  • sick leave
  • maternity, paternity and adoption leave.
  • Overtime
  • Rest breaks

Opting out of the 48-hour week

If you are 18 or over and wish to work more than 48 hours a week, you can choose to opt out of the 48-hour limit. This must be voluntary and in writing. It can't be an agreement with the whole workforce and you shouldn't be sacked or subjected to discrimination or disadvantaged, like being refused promotion or overtime for refusing to sign an opt-out.

If you sign an opt-out, you have the right to cancel this agreement at any time by giving between one week and three months' notice. You can agree this notice period with your employer when you sign the opt-out. You can cancel an opt-out even if it's part of a contract you've signed.

Example of opt-out agreement

I [insert your name] agree that I may work for more than an average of 48 hours a week. If I change my mind, I will give my employer [insert the amount of time which can be up to three months] notice in writing to end this agreement.

Signed……..............

Dated………...............

If you work in certain sectors, you can't opt out of the 48-hour limit to your working week.

Who's not covered by the regulations?

Your working week is not covered by the Working Time Regulations if you work in the following areas:

  • jobs where you can choose freely how long you will work, a managing executive for example
  • the armed forces, emergency services and police are excluded in some circumstances
  • domestic servants in private houses.

Transport workers

There are also special rules for mobile workers in the transport industry (either road, rail, or sea).

Where can you get help?

If you think you are being denied your rights to work no more than a 48-hour week (40 if you are under 18 years) contact the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland on 0800 0320 121. You can also contact the Environmental Health Department in your own District Council.

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them