Understanding the Working Time Directive and Regulations

Understanding the Working Time Directive

The Working Time Directive, a labour law established by the European Union, has been instrumental in shaping workplace standards across EU member states. Its adoption into UK law in 1998 as the Working Time Regulations marked a significant move towards enhancing worker health and safety. This legislation aims to protect employees from the adverse effects of overworking, which include risks like stress, fatigue, and potential workplace accidents.

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Why the Working Time Directive was Introduced

The European Union introduced the Working Time Directive (WTD) to address key labour practice concerns. Its primary aim was the health and safety of workers, recognising that excessive working hours without sufficient breaks led to increased occupational risks, health issues, and fatigue. The directive set maximum working hours and mandated regular rest periods to mitigate these risks.

With the expansion of the EU market, it became increasingly essential to harmonise labour laws across member states. This standardisation aimed to deliver fair working conditions, avoid competitive undercutting in labour standards and increase worker mobility within the EU. 

Another core focus of the WTD was enhancing work-life balance, regulating work hours and guaranteeing mandatory leave to improve workers’ quality of life and reduce burnout.

While the WTD set the stage for standardised working conditions across the EU, its implementation in individual member states, including the UK, required a tailored approach. This led to the development of the UK’s own Working Time Regulations, aligning with the EU’s overarching goals while addressing the specific needs of the UK workforce

The Working Time Regulations 1998

Following the introduction of the Working Time Directive by the European Union, the UK adopted these principles through its own Working Time Regulations. These regulations are a bespoke application of the EU’s directive, tailored to address the unique aspects of the UK labour market.

They provide a detailed framework for managing working hours, rest breaks, and annual leave in the UK, ensuring adherence to the fundamental aims of the WTD: worker health and safety, reduced occupational risks, and improved work-life balance.

The UK’s Working Time Regulations specify the maximum working hours, outline the entitlement to rest periods and annual leave, and adapt these directives to suit the UK context. This local adaptation ensures that the regulations are not only compliant with the EU’s standards but also responsive to the specific needs and conditions of UK employers and employees.

Weekly Working Hours

  • Standard Limit: The regulations stipulate that the average working hours should not exceed 48 hours per week, usually calculated over a 17-week period. This includes overtime.
  • Young Workers: For workers under 18, the limit is more stringent, with a maximum of 40 hours per week.
  • Opt-Out Option: Workers have the option to ‘opt-out’ of the 48-hour week. However, this must be a voluntary agreement and cannot be imposed by the employer.

Rest Breaks at Work

  • Daily Rest Breaks: If the working day exceeds six hours, employees are entitled to a rest break of at least 20 minutes. Employers may choose to offer longer or additional breaks.
  • Daily Rest Period: Workers should have a minimum of 11 consecutive hours of rest in each 24-hour period.
  • Weekly Rest Period: Employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or 48 hours in a two-week period.

Annual Leave and Holidays

  • Paid Annual Leave: The regulations guarantee a minimum of 5.6 weeks (28 days for full-time workers) of paid annual leave per year. This can include public holidays.
  • Carrying Over Leave: In some cases, employees can carry over a portion of their annual leave to the next year, but this is often subject to the employer’s policy.

Working Time and Breaks for Specific Cases

  • Special Industries and Roles: Certain sectors, such as emergency services, healthcare, or transportation, may have modified rules due to the nature of their work.
  • Shift Workers and Night Workers: Additional considerations are given to shift and night workers, including limits on night work hours and entitlements to health assessments.
  • On-Call Time: The regulations also address on-call time, with specific guidelines on how this time is counted as working hours.

What Counts as Working Time?

One of the key aspects of the Working Time Regulations is defining what constitutes ‘working time’. This definition is vital for employers to calculate working hours accurately and ensure compliance with the regulations.

What is Considered Working Time?

What is Not Considered Working Time?

Job Duties: Any period during which the employee is working, at the employer’s disposal, and carrying out their activity or duties is considered working time. This includes regular job tasks and additional responsibilities assigned by the employer.

Breaks: Short breaks during the day, including lunch breaks, are not typically counted as working time, provided the employee is not required to perform any work during these periods.

Paid Training: Time spent on training that is required by the employer or necessary for the job is typically counted as working time.

On-Call Time at Home: If an employee is on-call but not required to be at the workplace, only the time spent responding to calls is counted as working time.


Business Travel: Travel as part of the job, like client visits or offsite meetings, counts as working time. However, the commute to and from the workplace is not usually included. For a deeper understanding of managing travel time and its legal aspects, consider reading our detailed article on Understanding and Managing Travel Time Law.

Commuting: The regular travel time from home to work and back is generally not considered working time unless travelling is an integral part of the job.

On-Call Time at the Workplace: If an employee is on-call and required to be present at the workplace, this time is generally counted as working time, even if they are not actively working the entire time.

Voluntary Overtime: Overtime work that is optional and not requested by the employer is usually not counted as working time.


Record Keeping

Weekly Working Hours:

Employers are not required to keep detailed records of all daily working hours. However, they must maintain records demonstrating that employees do not exceed the 48-hour weekly working limit, unless there is an opt-out agreement in place.

Night Work Limits:

  • Records must show compliance with the working hour limits for night workers, ensuring they do not exceed an average of eight hours per 24-hour period.

Health Assessments for Night Workers:

  • Employers must offer and record regular health assessments for night workers, ensuring these assessments are up-to-date and relevant.

Protection of Young Workers:

  • It is necessary to keep records confirming that young workers are not employed during restricted hours, typically between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

These record-keeping practices are essential for demonstrating compliance with the Working Time Directive and safeguarding the well-being of all employees, particularly those working at night or young workers under specific restrictions.

Consequences of Non-Compliance


  • Businesses face a fine up to the statutory maximum for summary convictions. In more severe cases, fines can be unlimited if the case proceeds to indictment.

Notices by Health and Safety Inspectors:

  • The Health and Safety Executive or local authority inspectors can issue “Improvement” or “Prohibition” notices. Non-compliance with these notices can result in:
  • Potentially unlimited fines and up to two years’ imprisonment for directors on conviction on indictment.
  • A fine up to the statutory maximum and up to three months in prison on summary conviction.

Compensation Claims in Employment Tribunals:

  • Workers may claim compensation in an employment tribunal if their rights under the Working Time Regulations are breached.

Post-Brexit Changes to the Working Time Regulations

Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, there has been significant interest in how EU-derived legislation, like the Working Time Directive, will be adapted or maintained in UK law. While the UK has retained much of the EU legislation for consistency and legal continuity, there are areas where future changes could occur:

Post-Brexit, the UK has initially retained the core principles of the WTD, including the 48-hour workweek limit and statutory leave entitlements. This provides continuity for both employers and employees.

The UK government now has the autonomy to amend or revise these regulations. While no major changes have been announced, there is scope for future modifications to better align with the UK’s specific economic and social needs.

Additional Resources

Sarah McKee-Harris Portrait

Sarah McKee-Harris
CEO & Founder

Sarah has 16 years of experience in HR tTalent Acquisition, working extensively in both London and Essex. Her approach to HR is rooted in a simple yet effective philosophy: taking the time to listen, understand, and question our clients to pinpoint their unique business needs.

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