Working hours: how SMEs can support employees

4 min read  |   11 April, 2022   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

A sand timer with blue sand in it is standing on top of a laptop keyboard. It is about halfway through the timer.

A recent internal survey among first-year bankers at investment bank Goldman Sachs revealed that they averaged 95 hours of work a week and slept just five hours a night. They further claimed that their physical and mental health in addition to personal relationships were deteriorating as a result and that they were likely to leave unless conditions change.

Although this is a fairly extreme example of the damage that overwork can do, it’s a stark reminder of the risks to people and the organisations for whom they work posed by ‘always on’ cultures where employees are unable to switch off.

Long working hours can have a detrimental impact on employee engagement, wellbeing and their productivity as a result, as discussed in a report published by the Institute for Employment Studies.

Ensuring that employees aren’t overworked has a direct bearing on their happiness, engagement and motivation and is a key aspect of healthy company cultures which put people first.

In this post, we’ll cover what you need to know when considering employment law regarding maximum weekly working hours and consider steps you can take to prevent your team from overworking and suffering from burnout as a result.

How many hours can you work in a week?

Employees can work up to 48 hours a week, on average, over a period of 17 weeks (unless they opt out).

Maximum weekly working hours

There are specific laws which detail how many hours employees can work in a week. These rules are detailed within the Working Time Regulations (also called the working time directive). This law sets out working time restrictions for employees in the UK.

This means that an employee can work more than 48 hours a week, if the average weekly hours worked over a 17-week period works out as no more than 48 hours each week. This 17-week time frame is called the reference period.

Some jobs are exceptions to this rule, such as if you work in the armed forces, emergency services, or if you work at sea. The reference period is longer for trainee doctors (26 weeks), or the offshore oil and gas sector (52 weeks).

If an employee is under 18, they can't work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. 

How can employees opt out?

Employees can opt out of the 48-hour working week at any time by letting their employer know in writing. Typically, an employee would choose to opt out of the 48-hour working week so they can work extra hours. 

Employers can ask that staff opt out of the 48-hour working week, but this can’t be enforced without the employee’s agreement (unless one of the exceptions apply).

What’s meant by weekly working hours?

Weekly working hours refers to the time employees spend at work. This doesn't include:

  • Breaks (such as lunch or coffee breaks, where work isn’t being done)
  • Travelling to and from work (if you have a fixed place that you work)
  • Paid overtime
  • Holiday (either paid or unpaid)
  • Unpaid overtime requested by an employer

(This is unless otherwise specified in an employment contract).

3 tips to prevent overworking and burnout

Make expectations clear

So much of an organisation’s culture is unsaid. Employees pick up on how things are done and other people’s behaviour. By setting expectations on how much employees are expected to work (and being strict with finishing times) means that nothing can be left open to interpretation- and no one is still sat at their desk because they feel they can’t stop working.

Encourage communication

Let your team know that they can discuss any concerns or questions with you (or someone within the company). An open-door policy helps to build good working relationships and means that your people are able to air any concerns or issues they might have. 

Lead by example

Your team are less likely to overwork or stay behind long after the end of the working day if you don’t, either. Culture comes from the top, so be sure to finish up for the day and clock off on time wherever possible.

Our Working Time Regulations and holiday blog can help with managing leave when employees opt out of the 48-hour working week, as well as managing holiday for leavers.

Considering the amount of time people spend at work and encouraging a good work/life balance is an ever-present challenge for employers. 

Monitoring weekly working hours within your organisation is a good place to start, but if you want to supercharge employee engagement and commit to putting your people first, consider signing The Breathe Culture Pledge today. 

Get time back to focus on what's important


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

Aimée is a Content Assistant here at Breathe. She enjoys writing about topical HR issues & helping readers find solutions. In her spare time, she's commonly found amongst books.

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