Do I need to pay more to staff who work unsociable hours?

We are about to trade around the clock, 24 hours in some cases. Do we need to pay extra for employees who work unsocial hours?

The UK government doesn’t have an official definition of ‘anti-social’ or ‘unsocial’ hours, but unsocial hours payments can be defined as the increased hourly pay rates of workers who are employed to work hours or shifts which can be viewed to be unsocial, such as night shifts or weekend shifts; think overnight working or those who have to work on rotas that may include very early mornings or late evenings.

So what are the legal rules on working unsociable hours?

The only legal requirement is that employers pay the National Minimum Wage, but there is no legal entitlement for employers to offer increased pay for working unsociable hours.

The national minimum wage as of April 2023 is:

  • 23 and over (National Living Wage) – £10.42
  • 21 to 22 year olds – £10.18
  • 18 to 20 year olds – £7.49
  • 16 to 17 year olds – £5.28
  • Apprentice – £5.28

But what about younger workers?

Staff aged 16 or 17 cannot work between midnight and 4am.

They usually can’t work between 10pm and 6am (this can be changed to not working between 11pm and 7am, by contract) but there are exceptions if they work in:

  • Agriculture
  • Cultural, sporting, artistic or advertising activities
  • A hospital
  • A hotel or catering
  • Retail
  • Post or newspaper delivery

In exceptional circumstances they can work at night if there’s no adult to do the work and they’re needed to either:

  • Handle a sudden increase in demand
  • Maintain the continuity of a service or production, e.g. filming

The employer must give the young person a rest period of the same length as the extended shift.

Shift allowance law

Additional rules apply to night workers on top of the rules on maximum weekly working hours and rest breaks.

Night workers must not work more than an average of 8 hours in a 24-hour period. The average is usually calculated over 17 weeks, but it can be over a longer period (of up to 52 weeks) by agreement between employer and employee). Regular overtime is included in this average, but not occasional overtime. Full details on night working hours and sleep-in shifts here.

But that’s not fair, surely I should get paid for working those kind of hours?

This will come as a surprise for many and I am sure more for the employee themselves.

However certain industries which require a 24-hour, around-the-clock working pattern, seven-day-a-week service will commonly offer these additional payments to staff because they require a number of members of staff at all times regardless of how difficult these shifts are to fill.

For example, the NHS does have a payment structure for ‘unsocial hours’. Their contracts of employment offer ‘Time plus a percentage’ based on their core pay bands. The same sort of deal can often be found in private companies, but the key is the contract of employment. If there is no mention of additional payments in the contract then, as stated before, there is no legal requirement to do so.

Remember, the decision on determining the rate of pay is one to be made by the business and of course will take into account individual business needs.

Where is the good news?

If an employee is working under a contract of employment which includes unsocial hour’s payments, they will gain a contractual right to the additional pay when they are working the allocated ‘unsocial shifts’.

Clearly any failure to meet this contractual right will result in a breach of contract, a situation from which an employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal.

Employers are also be obliged to pay the additional money to part-time workers working the shifts as they cannot be treated less favourably; this goes for most part-time rights.

Tips for managing staff who work unsociable hours

Christian Brøndum, CEO of Planday, discusses how best to organise your employees’ shifts during unsociable hours.

Christian Brondum

In a world where increasingly even the smallest businesses operate on a 24-hour schedule, employers not only have an obligation to meet the demands of the business world; they also owe it to their employees to find the most beneficial way to carry out their work. Here are some tips on how to best organise your employees’ shifts during unsociable hours.

Plan ahead

This is a measure which helps both you and your employees. With regard to your employees, planning their shifts well in advance and letting them know exactly when their shifts will take place allows them to do as much as possible to take care of everything going on in their lives, meaning they’ll be more organised at work and much more productive. And obviously, productive employees lead to happy employers. By planning shifts and rotas well in advance, you avoid as many unpleasant surprises as possible whilst also helping your employees. They might work for you, but you have to work with them.

“When you’re only at work for short periods of time it’s important to boost productivity when you can”

Be flexible

Multiple studies have found that one of the negative effects of shift work is increased levels of stress in the worker. If a work schedule is inflexible and a worker has less control over their shifts, then this stress is likely to be much greater than in the average shift worker. To counteract this, it’s advisable to allow your employees some say in when they work. It’s important that you’re open to, but in control of, shift swapping as well. By using shift management software such as Planday, you can strike the right balance between strict planning and flexibility, as rotas are easy to change while cloud-based technology keeps both employer and employee updated of any changes.

Encourage breaks

Ensuring that your employees take regular breaks may sound like wasted time and money when dealing with shift workers, but it would be foolish to forget that breaks in the work day often boost productivity. Workers who take a short break every hour performed better than workers who did not. Shift workers can benefit hugely from these. When you’re only at work for short periods of time it’s important to boost productivity when you can. If you schedule in regular breaks and remain clear with your employees on when they can take, you win back more time than you waste.

You don’t have to be Elon Musk to be effective and working hard can sometimes mean you’re not working well. Business-owners everywhere need to work with their employees to find the best ways for them to work.

Further reading on employee work and pay rules

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

Related Topics

Employment Law
Staff Pay

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1 Comment

  1. hi there
    quick question, if you receive a shift allowance does you’re basic salary still have to be minimum wage or above?

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