12 JUNE 2024 7 MIN READ

The Working Time Directive is legislation that was introduced to protect the wellbeing and safety of employees by setting rules around working hours, rest time and annual leave. This legislation came into effect in 1998 in the UK, after initially being introduced in 1993 by the European Union.

As a small business owner, it’s important to be aware of all legislation that applies to you and your employees. Our handy guide breaks down everything you need to know about the Working Time Directive and how it impacts you as an employer.

What is the Working Time Directive?

The Working Time Directive was introduced to safeguard employees from being made to work too many hours within a set period. By governing the legal working hours for employees within the UK, these rules ensure that employees receive adequate time off and rest periods.

What are the legal working hours?

As outlined in the WTD, employees are limited to working a maximum of 48 hours within the one week. This is generally averaged over 17 weeks, or around roughly four months.

Also known as ‘WTD’, it was sanctioned into UK law as ‘the Working Time Regulations’.

Working Time

What counts as ‘working time’?

When it comes to the WTD, ‘working time’ refers to the time during which employees are officially working for their employer and are actively engaged/at their employer’s disposal. This includes:

  • Carrying out any tasks or duties
  • Attending calls and meetings
  • Attending calls and meetings
  • Working on projects
  • Times during which employees are required to be in the office or at a specific location

Please note: These are just some examples, which can vary depending on local labour laws and specific employment contracts.

What doesn’t count as working time?

‘Non-working’ time generally refers to time during which employees aren’t actively engaged in work duties or activities. Some examples of ‘non-working’ time are:

  • Break times
  • The commute to and from the workplace
  • Personal activity during work hours (this covers things like employees taking personal calls or spending time on social media)

Please note: The definition of ‘non-working’ time may vary depending on specific company policies and local labour laws.

Employee rights

The WTD outlines the following rights and protections for employees:

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Employees are limited to working 48 hours over a 17-week period, unless they specifically choose to opt out

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Night workers are limited to working 8 hours within one 24-hour period

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Employees have a right to 11 hours rest per day

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Employees have the right to 1 day off per week

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If the working day is longer than 6 hours, employees have a right to receive a rest break

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Full time employees have a right to receive 28 days paid holiday per year

Rest and time off

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What break times are employees legally entitled to?

Just like you, it’s important for your employees to have regular rest periods and time off. The Working Time Regulations outline the legal requirements for breaks.

The WTD states that adult workers within the UK are generally entitled to:

  • At least 20 minutes of rest when they work more than six hours within the one day
  • At least 11 hours of rest between working days

How many days can an employee work without a day off in the UK?

Employees within the UK are entitled to a minimum of one day off per week, or two days off within two weeks. In other words, they should receive a full day off for every 7 days that they work. And for every 14 days worked, they’re entitled to 48 hours break.

Please note: This may vary depending on specific industries.

What does this mean for me as an employer?

As a business owner, you have a duty of care to your employees. And as a result, it’s important that you follow all relevant legislation and laws that support their health and wellbeing. The working time directive provides framework to help you set your employees working hours within the legal limit. It also provides guidance around mandated rest days, breaks and holiday leave that your employees are entitled too.

What if I don’t follow the Working Time Regulations?

If you fail to follow the rules and regulations set out in the Working Time Directive, you may be found guilty of committing an offence. In which case, you could be liable to receive a fine.

Where appropriate, employees can file a complaint that may result in an employee tribunal.

Who does the WTD apply to?

This legislation is in place to protect the health and wellbeing of employees, and applies to the following:

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Employees and workers

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Agency workers

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Seasonal workers

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Casual workers

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Zero-hour contracts

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Can employees opt out?

Yes. Employees can choose to work more than 48 hours per week by choosing to opt out of the Working Time Directive.

As an employer, you can ask your employees to opt out. However, if your employee decides not to, their decision can’t be held against them, or lead to a detrimental impact on their working life or conditions.

Some of examples of this, include:

  • Being treated differently or worse than before
  • Having their working hours reduced without reasonable cause, or without discussing the matter with them beforehand
  • Subject to harassment or bullying
  • Being overlooked or rejected for appropriate development opportunities or promotion

How to opt out

To opt out, employees must put their decision in writing. This is known as the ‘Opt-out written agreement’ and should be kept separate from the employee’s contract.

For ease of understanding, gov.uk provides an example template of a written opt-out agreement:

Dear [Employer’s name],

I [worker’s name] agree that I may work for more than an average of 48 hours per week. If I change my mind, I will give my employer [amount of time/up to 3 months’] notice in writing to end this agreement.



The length of notice for cancelling depends on the terms outlined within the original agreement. However, this can’t exceed three months. If this isn’t covered in the agreement, by law, the default notice period is seven days.

Can anyone opt out?

To opt out, employees must be 18 years of age or older. Additionally, employees who work in the following areas can’t opt out:

  • Security guards whose work involves carrying goods of high value (on a vehicle)
  • Airline employees
  • Employees who work on boats or ships

Can drivers opt out?

Employees who work in the road transport industry (delivery drivers – except for those who are covered by GB Domestic drivers’ rules) can’t opt out and neither can other employees who fall under EU rules on drivers hours.

Can night workers opt out?

Night workers refers to employees who routinely work at least three hours during the night. Night workers shouldn’t work more than eight hours with a 24-hour period and can’t opt out of this limit. This includes overtime. Nighttime’ typically refers to the hours between 11pm and 6am.

Can employees change their mind?

The decision to opt-out is not set in concrete, and employees can cancel the agreement should they change their mind. In this case, they would need to give their employer notice of the change.

As an employer, you can’t ask employees to cancel their request to opt-out.

Does WTD apply to sole traders and self-employed?

No. WTD doesn’t apply to self-employed people.

One of the benefits of being self-employed is the freedom that comes with it. You call the shots when it comes to choosing your working hours, as you know how best to manage your workload/responsibilities. However, when running a small business, even though the WTD doesn’t apply to you, it’s still important to strike a healthy work/life balance that works for you.

To make sure that you comply with any relevant laws or regulations, it’s important to check the guidelines for the industry that you’re in as these may apply to your small businesses.

Taking a holiday when you’re self-employed

Much like deciding your own hours, being your own boss puts you in the unique position to manage your holidays and take time off that suits you. Despite the freedom to dictate when and how you take time off, a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners often go without holidays in order to keep their business ticking over.

We know that running your own business is no easy feat, and while it can feel like you’re being pulled every which way, it’s easy to understand why you may be reluctant to book in some well-deserved time off. But here’s just a few reasons why taking time for you can actually help, not hinder your business’ performance.

Breaking the Working Time Directive

Employees who break the Working Time Directive may be entitled to a form of compensation and/or additional time to rest.

Be mindful that local regulations and industry-specific provisions may apply to your small business when it comes to reviewing employee working hours, rest breaks and holidays. You can find more detailed guidance here.

Protect the future of your business

Running a business is hard work, so you want to protect the work you put in to make your business a success. Do a little thing today that can make a big difference to your business tomorrow. Get AXA Business Insurance and Future You will thank you.

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All links are checked and valid at time of publishing, 27 March 2024.