You’ve probably heard of working time rules, working time regulations or the working time directive, and know that it relates to the amount of time that you’re allowed to spend working- but do you know exactly what they are, why we need them, and how they came about in the first place?

The History of Working Time Rules

Ensuring that there are rules to limit the amount of time that people can spend working each week, is crucial to workers’ mental health, physical health and overall happiness. In the past, workers’ wellbeing wasn’t a huge priority to their employers, or to the government and, as a result, many people spent their whole lives working and some were even worked to death.

Since the beginning, workers have pursued and campaigned for their rights. In the middle ages, English peasants campaigned (well, revolted) for improved working conditions and increased pay. Later, during the industrial revolution, the industrial working-class grew and became more organised and, by 1842, the first modern general strike took place, in order to achieve fairer wages and safer, healthier working situations.

Eventually, wages became fairer, and working conditions did improve, but for a long time, workers continued to be overworked and were deprived of a life outside of their job. However, some progress was made in the 19th century regarding working time rules: children aged 9-13 were prevented from working more than 8 hours a day, and children aged 14-18 could only work for 12, but there were still no regulations regarding the hours that adults could work for.

Finally, in 1993, the Working Time Directive was enforced: a collection of laws which ensures that workers aren’t overworked, and which puts a limit on the number of hours that workers are allowed to work each week, as well as stating the breaks and holidays that they are legally entitled to.

What are the current working time regulations?

The rules enforced by the 1993 working time directive are still in use today. Though the directive was amended in 2000 (and EU states were given until 2003 to enforce the amendments), the rules remained the same, since the amendments were only to ensure that all work sectors were included.

The Working Week:

Workers cannot work for more than 48 hours a week on average. This average is usually taken from a reference period of 17 weeks but can be taken from a period of up to 52 weeks.

Workers can choose to work for more than 48 hours a week, by ‘opting-out’, but only if they’re over 18. They must opt-out voluntarily, and employers cannot force an individual to opt-out, nor can they fire or punish employees for refusing to opt out. This request must be put in writing, and be signed by the individual, and can specify how long they want to opt out of the 48-hour working week for, or the agreement can cover an indefinite period of time.

Under 18s can only work an average of 40 hours per week.


In any 24-hour period, workers must be given at least 11 hours of consecutive rest.

Workers are entitled to at least a 20-minute break if they work for a period longer than six hours.

Time-off and Holidays:

Workers are entitled to one day off per week or, alternatively, two consecutive days off in a two-week period.

Workers are entitled to at least 4 weeks of paid holiday each year.

Why are working time rules so important?

To put it simply, working time rules ensure that employers can’t legally exploit their employees, and these rules aim to improve the quality of workers’ lives and ensure that they get the chance to actually have a life outside of their job.

Research has suggested that the number of hours an individual work per week is directly related to that individual’s sense of happiness and wellbeing. Likewise, the chart below shows ten countries which ranked somewhere between 1 and 150 on the World Happiness List. As you can see, the general trend shows that the longer the average workweek for a country, the lower that country’s rank for happiness.

Though there will be multiple factors which contribute to a country’s overall happiness, there is an undeniable correlation between the average length of a work week in a country and the happiness of the individuals in that country.

How can companies ensure that they follow the Working Time Directive laws?

Many companies use scheduling and management software, which allows them to easily schedule their employees’ time, and keep track of how much they work, if they’ve taken time off and how much time off they’re entitled to. Some software even allows you to attach certain working time rules to certain employees, for example, if the employee is under 18 (and therefore can only work a 40-hour work week).