A four-day working week? What employers need to know about working hours

Posted on February 2, 2022
Posted by Frankie Mundy

Four day weekReducing a normal five-day week to a four-day week, with no drop in pay? For employees, this may sound too good to be true, but a number of UK businesses are indeed trialling a four-day working week with no associated reduction in their staff members’ pay. It is thought that the four-day week will boost productivity by promoting a better work-life balance and increasing staff wellbeing and morale. Many businesses have also reportedly made the move in the hope of attracting and retaining new talent as they face growing competition for staff. 

Whether you’re contemplating a change to your business’s working hours or not, we’ve set out below a refresher on your legal obligations as an employer when it comes to working time restrictions. It’s important to be aware of these rules, as failing to comply can be a serious health and safety issue, leading to criminal proceedings against your business and any senior members of staff involved. Your business could also face claims from staff in an Employment Tribunal and be ordered to pay them compensation. 


What are the general restrictions on staff working hours?

All of your employees, apprentices, casual workers or agency workers have certain rights in relation to the hours they work. In summary, these are:

  1. the right to work no more than an average of 48 hours per week, unless they’ve opted out of this right; 
  2. the right to daily rest breaks;
  3. the right to rest periods away from work each week;
  4. the right not to have their contractual hours changed without their prior agreement, except in limited circumstances; and
  5. if they are a shop or betting shop worker, the right to opt-out of Sunday working. 


We delve into each of these rights in more detail below. 

There are also additional rules applying to young workers (ie staff under 18) and night workers; see our Q&A on Young workers and Night and weekend working for further guidance. 


Can I require my staff members to work for more than 48 hours per week?

Not unless they have voluntarily opted out of the 48 hour limit in writing. You cannot force your staff member to opt-out or treat them unfairly if they refuse to do so. 

It is usual to include an opt-out provision in your employment contracts, but you can also do it at a later date. Our template employment contracts for a junior or senior member of staff contain relevant opt out provisions. Alternatively, you can use this template 48 Hour Opt-Out to obtain your staff member’s written agreement at another time. Your staff member can withdraw their opt-out at any time by giving you seven days’ notice in writing. 

Working hours include any time your staff member is actually working for you, receiving work training or carrying out activities that are, at least in part, for your benefit and done with your knowledge and approval (even if they are undertaken outside of their normal working hours). For guidance about how to work out whether your staff are working an average of 48 hours per week, see our Q&A on Rules about working hours

Bear in mind that even if your staff have opted out of the 48 hour working week, you still have a general duty to take reasonable care to protect their health and safety while they are at work. This can mean that they should not be required to work excessively long hours if it poses a reasonably foreseeable risk to their health and safety or the health and safety of others. You must also comply with the laws around daily and weekly rest breaks (see below). 


What daily rest breaks are my staff entitled to?

If they work for at least six hours a day, your staff must be given at least one uninterrupted break of a minimum of 20 minutes during the working day. It is, of course, open to you to offer your staff more than this legal minimum. These rest breaks don’t need to be paid, but you should set out whether or not they will be in your staff members’ contracts. 

If you refuse to allow your staff to take the rest breaks they are entitled to, or if you subject them to any detriment for refusing to work without one (eg by threatening to dismiss them), you could face claims in an Employment Tribunal and be ordered to pay compensation. 

Bear in mind that you have additional obligations if your staff members carry out monotonous or repetitive work (eg if they work in a factory or a call centre) or where they use a computer screen (see Rules about working hours for more guidance). You must also remember your duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled members of staff are not put at a substantial disadvantage as compared to your other staff members. This could mean, for example, allowing a disabled member of staff to take additional rest breaks during the day if their disability causes them to suffer fatigue at certain times. 


What rest periods away from work are my staff entitled to each week?

You must ensure that your staff members get, as a minimum:

  1. a rest period of at least 11 uninterrupted hours in each 24-hour period; and
  2. a rest period of at least 24 hours in between each working week (you can change this to two uninterrupted 24 hour rest periods every two weeks, or one uninterrupted 48 hour rest period every two weeks).


If you’ve agreed in their contracts that your staff will get additional rest periods, you must ensure that this is provided. 

Remember that there are more stringent rules for young workers


What should my staff members’ contracts say about working hours?

It is best practice to set out the working hours and rest break entitlement of all your staff in their contracts to ensure that their rights and obligations are clear. You’re currently only legally obliged to do so for your employees’, apprentices’ and casual workers’; these staff must be provided with certain written information about their employment terms on or before their first day of employment (this is usually provided in their employment contracts). The following information about working hours must be included:

  1. their hours of work, including what their normal working hours will be; 
  2. whether their working hours will vary and, if so, how; and
  3. their holiday entitlement and pay. 


It’s best practice to also include terms about the following:

  1. provision for your staff to work overtime when requested to do so, including how they will be paid for this time; 
  2. provision for your staff to work at the weekends if required; 
  3. any additional rest break allowances; and
  4. a variation or flexibility clause allowing you to change your staff members’ hours or work patterns without their agreement, if required. Unless such a clause is included, you will generally need your staff member’s consent to any changes. For detailed guidance about making changes to staff contracts, see Changing or adding to staff contracts


Can I require my staff to work on weekends?

It depends what their contract says! 

If their contract is silent on weekend work, it’s up to them whether they agree to your request.

Shop and betting workers cannot be required to work on Sundays unless their employment contracts say they must, or they have expressly opted-in to doing so in writing. For guidance on the rules about weekend work for shop or betting workers, see our Q&A on Night and weekend working

Be wary of the risk of discrimination when requiring staff to work at weekends. For example, if your staff follow certain religions or beliefs they may be required to  worship and/or rest on Saturdays or Sundays, and it could be discriminatory for you to insist that they work on those days unless you can show that it is a proportionate means of meeting your legitimate business needs


What records do I need to keep of working hours?

You must have proportionate record-keeping systems in place to enable you to demonstrate that you’re complying with the working time restrictions. This includes records confirming which of your staff have opted out of the 48 working hours rule. You must keep these records for at least two years from the date they’re made. 

Remember to make sure that you’re complying with data protection law at all times when recording personal information about your staff. 

The content in this article is up to date at the date of publishing. The information provided is intended only for information purposes, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Sparqa Legal’s Terms of Use apply.