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Working time: hours, leave, flexible working

You must comply with legal restrictions on employees’ working hours and time off. Failing to do so could lead to claims from employees, enforcement action or even prosecution. Giving employees fair holidays, work breaks and pay can also help to improve performance, reduce accidents and cut unauthorised absenteeism. You are legally required to consider requests from most employees for flexible working patterns.

Working hours

The Working Time Regulations set requirements for employees’ holidays, working hours and rest breaks. The regulations are designed to help protect employees’ health, safety and welfare in line with the EU Working Time Directive.

Employees are entitled to work a maximum of 48 hours a week, unless they freely opt out from this limit. The working time regulations also include requirements for work breaks and for rest periods between working days.

Following a recent Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decision, employers should check the working time of mobile employees who have no 'fixed place' of work. In this case, the judge ruled that time spent travelling to and from the first and last client of the day should count as working time.

The test of whether time qualifies as working time depends on whether the employee is:

  • at the workplace
  • at the disposal of the employer
  • carrying out activities or duties of their job

Where workers have no fixed place of work, such as a central office or depot, workers are deemed to be working while travelling to and from a job.

Holiday entitlement

Employees have a statutory holiday entitlement of a minimum of 5.6 weeks’ paid leave a year. This applies pro rata to part-time workers: for example, an employee working two days a week has an annual leave entitlement of 11.2 days. The holiday entitlement can include public holidays such as bank holidays.

Special rules apply to young employees, night workers and Sunday working.

Additional time off

Employees have statutory entitlements to maternity, paternity and adoption leave. Parents and carers are also entitled to take unpaid parental leave or care leave. For example, employees can take reasonable unpaid time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. This includes the right to bereavement leave for a dependant’s funeral.

Employees are entitled to paid or unpaid leave for a variety of activities. For example, you need to allow employee representatives paid time off for carrying out their duties (for example, as a health and safety representative). You also need to allow employees unpaid time off for various public service activities such as acting as a magistrate. If you are making an employee redundant, you must allow time off for job-seeking.

You should have a clear policy on sick leave, time off related to a worker’s disability, and any discretionary leave you allow. You should also make clear the procedures employees must follow to request leave.

Flexible working

Flexible working can involve a wide range of arrangements, including flexitime, part-time work or working from home. Bear in mind any flexible working arrangement that you agree to is likely to become part of an employee’s contractual terms, unless you specifically agree a temporary or trial arrangement.

The Government has now extended the right to request flexible working to all employees (from 30 June 2014). (Previously only employees who were parents of children under the age of 17, disabled children under the age of 18 or carers were entitled to make a request.) However, employees adopting employee-shareholder status do not have the statutory right to request flexible working except in relation to a flexible working request on return to work from maternity, paternity or adoption leave.

A request for flexible working might include a change to flexitime, part-time, working from home or some other arrangement.

You can only refuse the request for limited business reasons: for example, because the proposed flexible working arrangements would be too expensive or harm business performance. If you do not want to agree to a request for flexible working, you must ensure that you follow the right procedures and give a valid reason.

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