Lots of us work crazy hours.
It’s not always a bad thing. If you have control over your work, if you’re working to hit financial or life goals, or if you believe in what you’re doing, it can be one life’s pleasures.
But if you work so much you endanger your health, if you need to work long hours just to keep up, or if you feel someone is taking advantage of you, it can be a nightmare.
If you find yourself working more than is healthy, this article is for you. It explains:
- There is actually a law on maximum working hours and it applies to most workers
- How to check whether the law applies to you
- How some companies scam you out of your right to work no more than 48 hours
- The first step is to check your contract to see if it says anything about time limits
- How to check you’re being paid the minimum wage for the real hours you work and what to do if you’re not
- What to do if you’re being scammed out of your right to work no more than 48 hours.
Of course, as with everything on this site, this isn’t legal advice, it’s a guide.
Here’s what you need to know.
1) There is a law on maximum hours
There is a law which is supposed to make sure you’re not overworked, called the Working Time Directive.
In a nutshell, it’s illegal for an employer to make you work more than a 48 hour week.
That is averaged over 17 weeks though.
So if you have some late nights or heavy weeks, that doesn’t mean your employer is breaking the law. But if it happens all the time, they might be.
You’re also entitled to one day off each week.
You’re also entitled to 11 hours rest every 24 hours.
You’re also entitled to a 20 minute rest break if the working day is longer than six hours. It has to be in the middle of the day, not at the start or at the end.
There are some exceptions though, so check here.
2) The law applies to nearly everyone
The Working Time Directive applies to everyone who works, unless you fall into one of three categories:
- It doesn’t apply if you control how much you work. If you run your own company, for example, the law on maximum working time doesn’t apply. But if you don’t, even if you’re on a short-term contract, you might be in the legal category of ‘worker,’ in which case the law applies. To check, start here.
- It doesn’t apply if you work in:
- anything that needs 24-hour staffing,
- the armed forces or emergency services,
- security and surveillance,
- as a domestic servant in a private household,
- as a seafarer or sea-fisherman
- vessels on inland waterways, like cargo or passenger ships.
- Also, some other sectors, like civil aviation and road transport, have their own rules.
3. It also doesn’t apply if you’ve said in writing that you’re happy to work more than 48 hours a week.
In other words, even though 48 hours is the legal maximum, you can give your permission to the place where you work to ignore it.
You can’t opt out of the right to have 11 hours’ rest in any 24 hour period though. That’s your right, whether you’ve opted out or not.
Sometimes companies try to be sneaky about this though by scamming you into giving your permission. There’s more on this in section 4.
3) If you’re not sure whether the law applies to you, here’s how to check
If you’re not sure whether the law applies to you, check here whether you qualify as a ‘worker’.
If you qualify as a ‘worker,’ you have a legal right not to work more than 48 hours a week.
Zero hours contracts and temp work make no difference to this. So if you’re on a zero hour contract or you’re temping, it’s still illegal for you to have to work more than 48 hours on average over 17 weeks.
4) Check your contract to see if it says anything about time limits
Unfortunately, many companies scam workers into agreeing to work more than the 48 hour average.
In the hospitality industry, for example, restaurants and hotels often write in your contract that you’ve agreed to work more than 48 hours each week. That way, from the moment you sign to work with them, they can claim that you’ve agreed to work more than 48 hours a week, whether or not you’ve seen the clause.
And of course, if virtually all companies in your sector do it, you don’t have a choice if you want to work in that sector.
But even if you’ve signed a contract to say you’ve opted out of the 48-hour week limit, you still can’t opt out of other limits on how much you work. In other words, even if your contract says you can work more than 48 hours every week, you are still entitled to a day off each week, 11 hours’ consecutive rest every 24 hours, and a 20 minute rest break every six hours.
5) Is it legal? #1: keep track of your hours
So what can you do?
Well, the next stage is to work out if the place where you work has broken the law.
The first thing to do is keep track of your hours.
Note down what time you start and finish every day.
Of course, there are some grey areas, but here are some things which definitely count towards that 48 hour a week average:
- If you’re on call, even if you’re on call at home, that counts towards your 48 hour average.
- If you work in different places, for example if you’re a carer who visits different houses, then the travel time from home and work before and after work counts towards your 48 hour average.
- Training, working lunches, and unpaid overtime that you’re asked to do also all count towards the 48 hour average.
- A fuller list of what does and doesn’t count as work is here.
After 17 weeks, add up the total hours that you’ve worked.
If it’s more than 817, then you’re working more than 48 hours per week on average.
Unless you have opted out of the law (see section 4 above), your employer is probably breaking the law.
In that case, you can do something about it, as I’ll explain in section 8.
6) Is it legal? #2: check you’re earning minimum wage
If you’re working too many hours and you’re paid by the day or the month rather than hourly, it’s worth checking you’re being paid the minimum wage for the real number of hours you worked.
The minimum wage is here. It’s different according to how old you are.
To work out your real wage, divide how much you earned by the number of hours you worked.
If you’re earning less than the minimum wage, the place where you work is breaking the law.
Even if you signed a contract saying you were OK to work more than the 48 hour average, the place where you work is breaking the law if it pays you less than minimum wage for each hour you’ve worked.
In that case, you can do something about it. Have a look at our separate article about that here.
7) Is it legal #3: know your rights
Of course, the basic right is that you don’t have to work more than 48 hours on average over 17 weeks.
Dave Turnbull, Regional Officer with the Caterers & Hotel Workers’ Branch of Unite the union, has written about this on our ‘Ask’ forum. He writes:
“We represent workers in restaurants and hotels. Overwork is a big issue that we deal with.
The law is clear about this. It’s illegal for an employer to make you work more than 48 hours a week on average over a 17 week period.
Unfortunately, most employers in the hospitality industry get round these rules.
They put something in the contract to say you can work more than 48 hours.”
You can read Dave’s whole answer here.
If you have agreed to work more than the 48 hours, you have the right to change your mind so that the 48 hour limit applies again.
You just have to tell the employer. To start with, look at your contact to see how much notice your employer requires. The maximum notice they’re allowed to request is 12 weeks. Then look at the steps below.
If you’ve started a job, and you haven’t already agreed to work more than the 48-hour limit, you have the right not to be pressured into it. (Here’s the actual law). If the place where you work does pressure you into it, they’re breaking the law.
The company also isn’t allowed to fire you for refusing to work more than the limit. (Here’s the actual law). If they do, they’re breaking the law.
8) Talk to a coworker
If you’re not being paid the minimum wage, if you have to work too many hours, or if the place where you work is breaking the law in some other way, it affects other people too.
If they agree this is a problem, there are actions you can take.
A good first step is to talk to one coworker about the situation.
Together, agree to sit down with a few other colleagues to talk about it together.
9) Speak to your manager
Decide whether you feel comfortable raising this with your manager. If you do, make a time to speak to them and then go together with some coworkers and ask the best way to solve the problem.
Hopefully, they will be understanding and follow the law.
But if they don’t, you have a few options.
10) Option #1: Speak to the Authorities
If you have to work more than the legal limit, one option is to talk to the authorities about enforcing the law on maximum working hours. Start here.
12) Option #2: make a formal complaint
Option 2 is to make a formal complaint to your employer, called a ‘grievance’.
If you do this, you have the right to be accompanied by a colleague, family member or Trade Union representative. It’s a good idea to involve a Union. Read section 13 below.
You can find out more about how to do that here.
13) Option #3: Speak to your Union
Option 3 is to speak to a union about it.
If you’re a member of a union already, speak to your rep.
And if you’re not, it’s a good idea to join one; they can advise you on how to put in a formal grievance.
In general, unions can help you get together with others doing the same thing to avoid being ripped off on pay, hours, or rights.
Find out which union is right for you here.
14) Option #4: Set up an online petition on Organise
If you are confident that your position at work is secure and you work somewhere that is sensitive about its reputation, you can set up a petition online on The Organise Platform then spread the word on social media.
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Do you work more hours than you’re legally supposed to? Have you done something about it? What happened? Do you have professional knowledge which you can use to help people in our community deal with any of the issues in this article? Join the discussion in the ‘Ask‘ forum, here.