Overtime in the UK and Other Labour Considerations: What You Should Know

18 November 2022

Woman working at night in an office - a concept of working overtime.

Labour laws in the United Kingdom differ from those in other parts of Europe and certainly from those in the United States. Employers and employees alike often find themselves asking questions about what the laws are in the United Kingdom and what they need to do to abide by them. A particular topic of interest is how overtime law works in the UK. Today, we will take a look at the regulations and laws that must be followed when hiring employees in the United Kingdom.

Is Overtime Pay a Requirement?

Believe it or not, overtime pay is NOT a requirement in the United Kingdom. The official gov.uk website explains it like this:

Employers do not have to pay workers for overtime. However, your average pay for the total hours you work must not fall below the National Minimum Wage.

This is not to say that all employers will refuse to pay overtime wages. It simply means that it is not a requirement under current UK law. There are some employers that may choose to voluntarily offer to pay overtime as an incentive to encourage more people to come and work for them. However, no one should anticipate that they will receive this type of pay unless it is specifically laid out in their employment contract, in addition to normal working hours.

Employment contract

Any potential overtime pay offers should be completely defined in your employment contract. Your employment contract will usually include details of any overtime pay rates and how they're worked out. If you don't see any details about this, then you should assume that overtime pay is not offered. If that is a deal breaker for you, then you should decline to sign the contract.

Maximum Work Hours Per Week

There are restrictions on the number of work hours that one may work in a given week. The current limit in the United Kingdom is 48 hours per work week. That is determined by an average number of hours worked per week over the last 17 work weeks. This means that it is legal for someone to work more than 48 hours in a week as long as they rebalance those hours so that their weekly average comes out to 48 or fewer hours per week over a 17-week period.

Minimum Days Off Per Week

All adults in the UK are entitled to at least one day off per week. It is possible to average days off over a 2-week period. Thus, an adult must receive at least 2 days off for every 14-day work period. Additionally, adults are entitled to a rest period at work of at least 20 minutes if one is scheduled to work for more than 6 hours at a time.

Night Workers

Those who work at least 3 hours between 11 pm and 6 am on a regular basis are considered to be night workers, and they have extra protections and restrictions regarding their labour.

Night Worker Hours

A night worker should not average more than 8 hours of work per 24-hour period averaged out over a 17-week period. You are NOT permitted to opt-out of the restrictions on hours if you are a night worker.

There are special protections for those who work around hazardous materials or those who work particularly mentally or physically straining jobs. They are not permitted to work more than 8 hours in any given 24-hour period no matter what.

Limited Exceptions

There are a few types of work that have exceptions to the night working rules. These include:

  • Those who serve in the armed forces

  • Those who work as domestic servants in private homes

  • A managing executive who chooses how long they work freely

These are a very limited set of exceptions, and the strict rules are meant to remain in place for all night workers to ensure the safety of those who work at particularly challenging hours. That said, these rules must exist to help make sure people who are working jobs that are physically and mentally straining are not doing so at the cost of their health. We should all look out for one another, and that means caring about the kind of hours that various people have to put in.

Tired Businessman at her Desk, Showing Yawning Gesture While Talking to Someone on Mobile Phone.

Opting Out of Weekly Hour Restrictions

Employees have the freedom to sign an agreement opting out of the 48-hour weekly limit on hours if they freely choose to do so. They simply sign what is known as an opt-out agreement, and they are freed from those restrictions. This agreement should be a completely different form from their employment contracts, and they should not be made to sign it as a condition of employment. Also, employers should not treat them any differently if they choose not to sign it. The choice to sign it or not is something that needs to be left up entirely to the individual employee.

Why Might Someone Opt Out?

There may valid reasons why someone chooses to opt-out of their 48-hour limit on working hours. For example, they may feel that they need to put more time in per week to fulfil the requirements of the job. Also, they may decide to do so because they simply want to pick up more hours and earn a greater income. If that is the case, then they may voluntarily choose to accept an opt-out agreement to allow themselves greater access to more hours.

Changing Their Mind

In some cases, an employee may change his or her mind about opting out of the 48-hour limit. What might have seemed like a good idea, in the beginning, might turn out to be too much work for them to reasonably handle. That is both acceptable and permitted under UK law. If one chooses to go back to the 48-hour limit on their labour, they can do so. It is necessary to give your employer proper notice that you intend to do so, but many people choose to do exactly that, and they can legally get out of their opt-out agreement in that way.

It is important to keep in mind that even if you decide to opt out of the 48-hour per week limit, this does NOT mean that your employer has to offer premium pay. They may choose to do so as an incentive for you, but it is not a requirement that they do so.

Meal Breaks

Employers are required to provide rest or meal breaks if an employee is scheduled to work for 6 hours or more in a given 24-hour period. That period must be at least 20 minutes uninterrupted.

Employees may choose how they would like to use that break. Many opt to use their time to have a meal and relax. It is a time to reset their mental and physical state before taking on the remainder of their work day.

Typical Weekly Hours Worked in the UK

To better gauge a potential labour contract you are considering signing versus what the norm is in the United Kingdom, it is ideal to look at the typical weekly hours worked in the country. Right now, the average number of weekly hours worked is 36.5 hours as of August 2022. The number dropped quite a bit down to about 30.3 at the beginning of the 2020 COVID pandemic when many people were laid off or forced to work limited hours. However, that number has rapidly climbed back towards more normal levels as some of the worst of the pandemic has dissolved.

Contract Considerations

Those looking over an employment contract and considering the number of working hours they might have to put in to take that job might want to consider those averages before saying yes or no to a new job. Their decision should come down to the fairness of the contract compared with what they might expect from a similar job in the same industry.

Workers who are considering signing an opt-out agreement to take on more than 48 hours in a week should be sure that this is something that are fully convinced they should do. They might know that they need to earn some extra money, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they should commit to leaving behind the 48-hour weekly restrictions. Some employers might try to take advantage of that and have an employee working a schedule that is simply unsustainable for them in the long run. Just make sure you are completely positive that your employer is not going to try to do that to you.

Know your labour rights

As of right now, there are no pending considerations for changes to the overtime rules in the United Kingdom. They have been set how they are for some time. It is smart to keep an eye on them and see if anything changes going forward. However, it is always wise to know what your labour rights are before taking on any type of work anyway. Make sure you are equipped with the knowledge that you need, and you will be in great shape to protect your rights and stay safe from any employer that may run afoul of those rights.

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