Working Unpaid Overtime – UK Law & Employee Rights

In many work environments, employees find themselves being expected to work beyond their contracted hours. Whilst some are paid extra for this, others are working unpaid overtime.

If you’re being asked to work extra hours without compensation, it’s important to understand your rights and the legal protections available to you.

If you are feeling unhappy about the expectation to work unpaid for extra hours, you aren’t alone. Many employees express dissatisfaction and experience feelings of burnout in the face of unreasonable expectations.

Our guide will help you protect your interests, and help you achieve a healthy and positive work life balance by asserting your rights.

UK Overtime Law

Have you totalled up your overtime for the month and realised how much more you would be earning if it was paid?

You may be somewhat surprised to learn that employers are under no legal obligation to pay their staff to work extra hours. There’s no law that requires employers to pay for extra hours worked, or pay for overtime at enhanced rates. Overtime hours are classed as anything over and above your contracted hours.

Despite there being no requirement to pay for overtime, there are still legal protections around working hours and pay for UK employees.

Working Time Regulations

The Working Time Regulations stipulate that most UK workers are not permitted to work more than 48  hours per week. The only way they can get around this limit is by agreeing to opt out by signing an opt out form

These 48 hours per week are averaged out over 17 weeks in most industries. Young workers cannot work more than 40 hours per week and they cannot opt out of this.

Employees are also entitled to a legal rest period between shifts under the Working Time Regulations. They must have at least 11 hours between finishing work and starting the next day.

So, whilst overtime can be unpaid, an employee’s hours must not exceed their lawful limit. Workers cannot be forced into working over and above the 48 hours and they cannot be treated unfairly because of it.

National Minimum Wage Act

Another piece of legislation to be followed by UK employers is the rule concerning the National Minimum Wage. If employees work additional hours and this takes their overall wage below the minimum wage, the employer has broken the law.

There is an Online Calculator for employees to use to check their wages do not fall below the minimum or living wage.

The Living Wage is for those who are 23 and over. If you use this calculator and find you have been underpaid by your employer, you should talk to your manager. They legally have to pay back any underpayments they have made or they may face a large fine.

Can You Refuse to Work More Than Your Contracted Hours?

The short answer to this question is yes, you can refuse to work more than your contracted hours. Contracts are there for a reason so you are not in any way obligated to commit to overtime.

There are a few considerations to keep in mind, however. Firstly, if the overtime is paid then it may be to your benefit to take it on as and when you want to. Secondly, continuing to turn down overtime may cause a strained relationship with the management team. Also, it can put added pressure on colleagues.

Sometimes it is worth considering the overall impact your refusal will have on the environment. Having said this, if overtime is not paid, staff will often feel unmotivated to make the effort and do extra hours.

See Also: Can you be forced to work overtime?

The Culture of Unpaid Overtime in the UK

It has become glaringly obvious over recent years just how much free labour employers get from their workers. In many work environments there is a cultural to work overtime with no extra pay.

The trouble with employees staying a few extra hours here and there, is it quickly becomes the expected norm. Then, before anyone realises, it has formed part of the implied terms of the contract.

In a recent study, TUC found that in 2022, 3.5 million workers did unpaid overtime. This shows to what extent it has simply blended in with what is expected of staff nowadays. It is almost to the point of being abnormal to not do any overtime.

Many factors affect overtime such as hefty workloads, strict deadlines and staff shortages. Although working overtime keeps the workforce ticking over, it can have a detrimental effect on staff wellbeing. That’s without mentioning the impact it has on families and a healthy work life balance.

Cost to Workers

In 2022, also as a result of findings by TUC, it was estimated that UK employers gained a total of £26 billion of unpaid work from their employees.

Every year, TUC initiates a “work your proper hours day”. Staff are encouraged to down their tools the very second their shift ends and go home. This should be something that is supported by employers too.

This scheme runs to highlight the worrying work culture that has emerged over recent times. It draws attention to long hours and no rewards. There are many industries who come out tops when it comes to unpaid overtime. Top of the list is frequently teachers and managers and directors.

On Work Your Proper Hours Day, you are encouraged to take your entitled daily rest break, take regular breaks from screens and go home as soon as your shift ends. Employers should support this by giving their staff manageable and realistic workloads.

Mental Health in the Workplace

It goes without saying that masses of unpaid overtime will come at a price and mental health features highly here. When we feel like all we do is work and sleep and there is no longer balance, mental health will suffer.

When the overtime culture becomes the norm, you will find presenteeism common in the workplace. This refers to being at work for far longer than you are contracted for because you feel you have to be. This not only leads to burnout and illness but it can also lead to a reduction in productivity.

Without proper recharge time away from work, staff wellbeing becomes compromised. There will  come a point where employees end up on mental health sick leave due to burnout. Ironically, this will lead to a further loss of income for those who don’t get company sick pay due to the UKs low SSP rates.

Overworked staff does not make for a happy and positive work environment. Instead staff will begin working on autopilot without putting in the extra effort. They can become resentful of their job and start looking elsewhere for work.

Are You Working Too Many Hours?

If all of the above resonates too well with you then it might be time to reassess your situation. Remember that there are rules around the hours you can work and you can hold your employer accountable.

Working the odd bit of overtime is fine and part and parcel of most jobs. However, if you have taken on too much and are feeling the effects, it is time to do something about it.

There are laws that are there for a reason – to protect the UK workforce.

If Unpaid Overtime Breaches the Law

Should you discover that your unpaid overtime has breached UK laws, it is time to act. There are steps you can take if you think the working time regulations have been breached or the laws around minimum wage.

You can try simply having a chat with your boss or the HR department. Sometimes an informal chat stating your case is enough to see some changes.

If your employer has breached minimum wage rules or working time regulations, you can file a formal grievance. Minimum wage breaches can be escalated by reporting your employer to HMRC, or taking them to an employment tribunal.

Disputes regarding Working Time Regulations can be escalated via an employment tribunal claim, or by reporting your employer to the HSE.

Regaining Control of Overtime Expectations

Burnout is no fun and it is something that can be avoided by practising some self care at work. This means setting boundaries and sticking with them.

Here’s some tips on how you can regain control over overtime expectations:-

  • Have a read of your contract and remember you only legally have to work your contracted hours.
  • Have an informal chat with your boss or HR if you feel stressed about your working hours.
  • Make an effort to inject more of a work life balance.
  • Make sure you take your statutory uninterrupted break during work hours.
  • Do not take work home with you.
  • Talk to a trusted colleague when you are struggling.


Can you be fired for refusing to work overtime unpaid?

You cannot be fired for refusing to work overtime if it is not a clause of your contract. You are only legally obligated to work your contracted hours each week.

Am I entitled to overtime pay?

Employers do not have to pay overtime rates. They do not have to pay for overtime at all. However, many recognise the benefits of paying for their employees to do overtime.

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