Working hours and breaks at work

Working during the day can seem endless, but that doesn’t mean it actually should be. You're entitled to get breaks and work the right hours during the work. To make sure you’re not working too hard and that your boss is following the law, read our guide to working hours and breaks.

Two young people are standing by lockers. They are talking about breaks at work. This is a wide-angle image.

How many hours can I work?

In most jobs, you can’t be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average – including overtime and rest breaks.

You can choose to work longer if you agree to this in writing with your employer. You can also change your mind about the arrangement as long as you give your employer at least seven days notice.

Under 18 working hours and breaks

If you’re under 18, you can’t work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. You’re also not allowed to ‘opt out’ of the 48 hour working week restrictions. Even if you have a signed letter from your boss. For more information on young workers, see our article on work for under 18s here.

What counts as time at work?

An employee’s time at work doesn’t include:

  • Statutory holiday leave, sick leave, or maternity, paternity, adoption or parental leave
  • Lunch breaks (unless you have to work through them)
  • Your journey to and from work (unless you have to travel in the course of your job)
  • Being on call away from your workplace
  • Voluntarily working overtime

Make sure to talk to your boss beforehand about what they consider working hours and breaks. It might also be helpful to agree on when you start work and finish work. That way you can avoid confusion and make sure you’re fulfilling the requirements of your job.

Your rights to legal rest breaks at work

Under the Working Times Regulations act (1998)…

If you’re aged 18 or over, and your working day is at least six hours, you usually have the legal right to uninterrupted 20 minutes of legal breaks  at work. You’re also entitled to an 11-hour rest between working days, and an uninterrupted 24 hours without work every week.

If you’re under 18, you should have 30 minute rest periods if you work more than 4.5 hours. Plus, you’ll get a daily rest of 12 hours between working shifts, and 48 hours uninterrupted without work every week.

Keep in mind that if, for whatever reason, you miss your break, your boss is legally obligated to make up for it by giving you compensatory rest. This is especially helpful if you’re a shift worker who constantly misses out on their breaks.

Exceptions to the rules about working hours and breaks

There are a few jobs where the legal breaks at work and working hours are applied differently – these include couriers, commercial drivers, members of the army and police and security guards. You can check out the government’s website if you wanna find out if the exceptions apply to you, or are just genuinely curious about employment law. No judgement here. 

Further help with working hours and legal breaks

If your employer doesn’t follow the rules on legal breaks and working hours, it’s illegal. Not to mention the fact that they’re purposely putting your health and safety at risk. For help and advice in this situation, contact your trade union (if you belong to one), the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368, or your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).

In case it starts to get out of hand, you could always make a complaint using your company’s grievance procedure. If that does not lead to a resolution, then try taking it further and go to an employment tribunal.

For more help understanding your right at work check out the rest of our workers’ rights resources here. Alternatively, you could contact Acas, who offer free advice on all things employment law. Call them on 0300 123 1100.

Next Steps

  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 0300 123 1100
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Tom Green

Updated on 11-Feb-2022