Working time, rest breaks and holidays: a guide for SMEs

Working time, rest breaks and holidays

There are strict limits on the number of hours your employees can work each week. Employees are also entitled to minimum rest breaks and holidays. Complying with the rules on employees' working hours can help reduce employee sickness, improve performance and reduce the risk of workplace accidents

Working hours

Workers are protected from working excessive hours.

  • Workers must not work more than 48 hours per week, averaged over 17 weeks.
  • Employees can 'opt out' of the weekly limit in writing.
  • You must not force employees to opt out.
  • You must not sack, or treat any worker unfairly, that does not opt out.
  • Workers can cancel their opt out at any time if they give at least seven days’ notice.
  • Young workers (aged under 18) must not work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Young workers cannot opt out of these limits.
  • Shift workers must have at least 11 hours' rest between shifts.
  • Night workers should not work more than eight hours per night. A night worker is any worker who regularly works more than three hours between 11pm and 6am.
  • You can ask employees to declare any other jobs they have so you can check they do not exceed the limit on working hours.

Rest breaks

Workers are entitled to minimum rest breaks during the working day and between shifts.

  • Workers should be given at least one day off (24 hours) each week. You can postpone the time off, but it must be taken at a later date.
  • The day off can be taken back-to-back as one 48-hour break over a 14-day period.
  • Workers are entitled to at least 20 minutes’ break if they work for more than six hours a day. You must make sure workers take their break.
  • Mobile workers are entitled to ‘adequate’ rest.
  • Young workers (aged 16 or 17) must have two days off a week.
  • Young workers must take at least 30 minutes’ break if they work for more than four and a half hours.
  • Young workers must have 12 hours off between working days.
  • Stricter rules apply for school age children - especially during term time.

Holiday entitlement

All employees are entitled to paid holiday. Employees must take a minimum amount of holiday per year and there are limits on the amount that can be ‘rolled over’.

  • Employees accrue paid leave from the first day of employment.
  • Workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid leave per year (at least 28 days’ paid holiday for a full-time worker).
  • Part-time employees, temporary staff and casual workers are entitled to paid holidays on a pro-rata basis.
  • If your holiday entitlement is more generous than the statutory entitlement, all workers must be given the same amount on a pro-rata basis.
  • You can round leave up (but not down) if employees are entitled to part days.
  • Employees can carry leave forward to next year (but everyone must take at least four weeks' leave per year).
  • Paid annual leave continues to accrue, even during periods of absence (eg for illness, maternity, paternity or adoption leave).
  • You can specify when holidays can be taken, but everyone must take at least four weeks off per year.
  • Bank holidays do not have to be given off with pay, but you can include bank holidays in the statutory annual leave.

The method for calculating holiday pay is complicated, so you should take advice if you are in any doubt. There is a holiday entitlement calculator on the GOV.UK website which can help.

Other special leave

Employees are also entitled to time off in other special cases including:

  • to accompany a colleague to a disciplinary or grievance hearing;
  • to act as an employee representative;
  • to carry out duties as trustees of an occupational pension scheme;
  • (for certain employees aged 18 and under) to complete study or training;
  • for trade union activities;
  • to carry out duties as a safety representative for health and safety purposes;
  • for jury service or to carry out public duties (eg as a Justice of the Peace);
  • (if being made redundant) for job-hunting or to train for other employment.

You can decide what amounts to reasonable time off in these cases. 

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