By John Martin

When it comes to working, there are specific rights and entitlements that workers and employees are entitled to, but not everyone is fully aware of what this involves. In short, the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) is an EU initiative that is designed to prevent employers requiring their workforce to work longer hours than they should be. An employer quite rightly wants to get as much as they can out of their employees in order for their business to be successful and thrive. But at the same time, an employer has a responsibility to not overwork their employees or have them work excessively long hours. This is because amongst other things, there is a health and safety implication. 

The regulations are a directive, but in order for the legislation to pass, the countries can then use the directive as a guide and implement the rules, be it the same or amended into their own government guidelines for working practice in that country. As mentioned, not everyone really knows the exact entitlement or what is safely allowed when it comes to working hours and the time invested into your working day, so here is a dummies guide to the European Working Time Directive. 

The history of the European Working Time Directive

The EU working time directive was first drafted back in 1993 and was introduced as a way to improve the living and employment condition of workers. This was mostly felt for people working long shift patterns or also working at night. The regulations in place are needed to be implemented by the employer, but there is an “opt out” option where employees can sign to say that they can work more than the 48 hours per week that the European Working Time Directive states you mustn’t exceed. The employer can get around this by adding the clause into the contract where if the business has a need for you to work more than those hours that you can and you will. This has divided some people, but other than that, the regulations need to be implemented for working hours and rest breaks. 

The nature of how people work is changing, and because of the stricter guidelines that have been implemented, more employers are looking at flexible working options that can and will include working from home as well as zero-hour contracts. 

Why were the regulations created? 

These regulations were created and designed to protect workers and the aim would be to improve the health and safety, as well as the wellbeing of the workforce by limiting the amount of time they can spend working. It also means that regular breaks need to take place after a certain length of time that has been worked. There are minimum rules that employers need to follow that include daily and weekly rest periods, rest breaks, annual leave and entitlements, length of working week and also specific to night shift work. 

There were times when certain groups of workers were excluded from the regulations, and this was specified in terms of training and also educational purposes. But this has recently been changed to include all workers, whether training and in education or not. 

What are the requirements of the working time directive?

There are key aspects of the European Working Time Directive as it is specifically applied to the hours working. There are specific requirements that an employer needs to follow. These are as follows:

  • There is 11 hours continued rest within a 24-hour period
  • There is a minimum of a 20-minute break when a shift or working day exceeds 6 hours
  • There is a minimum of 24 hours rest in every 7 days or minimum of 48 hours rest in every 14 days
  • An employee has an entitlement of 4 weeks of paid annual leave
  • There is a maximum of 8 hours work in a 24-hour period if categorised as night work

Does everyone follow the regulations that are in place?

The problem you have is that some employers have been a little slower in implementing the legislation. You will find that most employers will offer you a 20-minute break or more for 11-12 hours of working, but you will find that the time can vary from working time of 6 hours or more. Some of the more complex rules have been open to interpretation when it comes to employers, and this is when things can get a little blurry as an employee. One of the main things that has caused a divide is the “opt out” rule that some employers can enforce on their employees. This is when the maximum 48-hour working can be extended to meet “business needs” and there will be a mention of this in an employment contract where an employee will waive their rights on this and can and should work more should their business ask them to.

Does the European Working Time Directive have an impact on working life?

There are no studies that prove that the EWTD has been a direct reason why working times and working conditions have changed in a positive way, but there has been a reduction in the number of hours people are working during the week and also in terms of the amount of days working between rest periods. 

Where has there been the most impact?

The biggest impact that the European Working Time Directive has had on the workplace has been mostly in the healthcare sector, or industries where there is a continued need for a 24-hour operation. The introduction of the EWTD in terms of breaks and shift patterns has helped to significantly increase the time that people have in terms of breaks and time out of the business. Which makes for a more productive workforce overall. Some employers have felt a hit financially when it comes to the paid annual leave, but that is all that has been recorded. 

Let’s hope this has given you a better idea of the European Working Time Directive and what your rights are. 

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