Hours, rest breaks and the working week

Exemptions for workers who choose their hours


Certain workers who choose their hours are exempt from the rules for:

  • the maximum average hours a worker can work each week
  • rest breaks
  • rest periods

A worker falls into this category if they can decide when and how long they work for.

They may have an element of their working time measured or pre-determined, but otherwise, they decide how long they work. A test, set out in the regulations, states that a worker falls into this category if 'on account of the specific characteristics of the activity in which the worker is engaged, the duration of the worker’s working time is not measured or predetermined, or can be determined by the worker.'

An employer needs to consider whether a worker passes this test. Workers such as senior managers, who can decide when to do their work and how long they work, are likely to pass the test. Those without this freedom to choose are not.

This exception would not apply to workers who are:

  • paid hourly
  • claiming paid overtime
  • working under close supervision
  • implicitly required to work

Nobody can be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours a week against their will and this exception does not remove this protection.

Check if special exemptions apply to your business

There are exceptions to the rules about working hours, rest breaks and rest periods if your workers:

  • work a long way from where they live
  • have to travel to different places for work

There are also exceptions to cover:

  • security or surveillance work to protect property or individuals
  • jobs that require round-the-clock staffing, for example in hospitals, residential institutions and prisons
  • some employees working in rail transport
  • exceptionally busy periods, based on objective grounds, eg Christmas for retail businesses
  • emergencies

In all these cases:

  • you should average workers' hours over 26 weeks, rather than 17 weeks, to find their average working week
  • your workers are entitled to accumulate their rest periods and take them at a later date - called compensatory rest

Your workers may be covered by other rules if your business is in one of the following sectors:

  • air, road, or sea transport
  • inland waterways and lakes
  • sea fishing

Mobile workers

There are also special rules for mobile workers under the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005.

Mobile workers include:

  • drivers - including employed drivers, own-account drivers, and agency drivers
  • members of the vehicle crew, eg a second driver on a coach
  • anyone else who is part of the travelling staff, eg a bus conductor, a drayman, a trainee or apprentice or a security guard aboard a vehicle carrying high-value goods

Workers who only occasionally carry out activities are not covered by these rules. These 'occasional mobile workers' will need to follow the Working Time Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 instead.

Mobile workers must not exceed:

  • an average of 48 hours per week
  • 60 hours in any single week
  • ten hours in any 24-hour period, if working at night

Young workers

If you are employing young people, you should remember that there are no exemptions in these industries from the regulations for workers aged under 18.

Read more on employing children and young people.

Night workers

A night worker normally works between 23:00 and 06:00 and works at least three hours at night. Night workers should not work for more than an average of eight hours in each 24 hour period. A night worker cannot opt-out of the night work limit, the night work can be calculated over the 17 week reference period, but can be longer in some circumstances. Young workers should not normally work at night, although certain exceptions allow for this.

Where a night worker’s work involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain, there is an absolute limit of 8 hours on the worker’s working time each day – this is not an average.

Night workers must be offered a free health assessment before they start working nights and on a regular basis after that. Workers do not have to take the opportunity to have a health assessment but it must be offered by the employer.

  • LRA Workplace Information Service
    03300 555 300
  • HSENI Helpline
    0800 032 0121
Developed with:
  • Department for the Economy
  • LRA