I am expected to work very long hours and I'm feeling exhausted. Is there a legal limit on working time for interns?

If you have 'worker' status as an intern, you have legal protection against excessively long hours and overwork.

You should be very careful about overwork. Excessive working time has been shown to increase the risk of developing mental illness, heart disease, diabetes and a range of other illnesses. All work and no play does not just make you a dull boy or girl – it can also seriously damage your health.

There are few exemptions from these rules. Only senior managers who genuinely have control of their own working patterns, members of religious communities, servants and au pairs are not covered.

It is worth noting that trainees are entitled to all working time rights. If your internship includes work experience or on-the-job training, you will be covered by the following minimum rights for workers stipulated in The Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR):

  • a 48-hour limit on average weekly working time;
  • an eight-hour limit per night (which equates to a weekly average 48-hour limit) on night work;
  • an eight-hour per night absolute limit on night work that involves exceptional strain or hazards;
  • free health checks for night workers;
  • one day's rest per week;
  • 11 hours' rest per day; and
  • 20 minutes' break if work exceeds six hours per day.

When assessing whether the 48-hour weekly limit has been breached, the hours worked are usually averaged over 17 weeks. This period is known as the reference period, and it may be even longer in some industries.

The eight hours per night / 48 hours per week limit for nightwork is usually averaged out in the same way. However, if the work involves special hazards or excessive physical or mental strain, no averaging is allowed. The limit is simply eight hours per night. The minimum day's rest per week entitlement can be taken as two days per fortnight.

There are much tougher rules protecting young workers aged 16 and 17.

Most people can sign an agreement as an individual to opt out of the 48-hour limit and thus forego their protection against working long hours. This must be a free choice. Check out our comprehensive Working Hours section for more information.

The 48-hour week, nightwork limits and health assessments for nightworkers are enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in most cases. Complaints about working time can be made via the Acas Helpline (tel: 0300 123 1100).

For shops and offices – where most interns work – enforcement of these particular rights is handled by the local council's Environmental Health department.

The daily, weekly and in-work rest breaks are also enforceable by taking a case to an employment tribunal. Call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100 for further advice.

If you are being required to work excessive hours, it is likely that you also have a claim for the National Minimum Wage. See our section on Rights for Interns for more information.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.