The State of Hourly Work in the UK: 2020

In brief

Being paid by the hour in 2020 is precarious, unpredictable, badly paid and head office doesn't know what they're doing.

  • Over 50,000 survey respondents told us:

    • Only 23% agree that head office understands what’s happening where they work [jump]

    • 42% of people on zero hours contracts are really working full-time jobs without any income guarantees [jump]

    • 63% of people don’t get enough notice of their shifts to plan their life properly [jump]

2020 has produced a lot of new phrases, but for us at Breakroom ‘key worker’ has been one of the most memorable and poignant.

In March, the government produced a list of key worker jobs, asking the people on the list to keep working and sending their children to school. If you were on it, you were essential. The rest of us, less so.

Critical workers list from GOV.UK

And when you look at that list it’s striking just how many of the roles are paid by the hour. 10.6 million people (33% of the UK workforce) are key workers, and we estimate over 60% of them are paid by the hour.

Care workers, supermarket assistants, delivery drivers, and more: hourly work sustains the economy and keeps us all fed, supplied and cared for.

Now, at the end of 2020, the difference between people working from home on a salary and those on the frontline being paid by the hour couldn’t be more stark.

In this post, we’ll share stories and data from over 50,000 Breakroom users to help everyone understand a little more about what it's like to be an hourly worker in 2020.

We’ll cover what we’ve learnt this year, why it matters, and which employers are doing it right (and wrong).

About Breakroom

Breakroom is the people-powered job comparison site. We collect information and make recommendations that help people get a better job.

All the information in this post comes from survey responses on our site between 1st January and 1st December this year, and from people who told us they’re paid by the hour.

Our survey asks people about what really matters in a job. The questions were developed from hundreds of interviews with people working in retail, hospitality, construction, logistics and more.

Find out more about Breakroom and how our ratings work.

What we learnt about hourly work in 2020

Only 23% of people think head office is aware of what's happening on the frontline

The best employers have a clear understanding of what’s actually happening on the frontline. They listen to the folks on the ground, and improve practices and processes to meet their needs.

In 2020 only 23% of people agreed that’s happening where they work.

This is one of the hardest challenges that employers face. There can be a huge cultural divide between people in head office working at desks, and teams on the ground on their feet all day. 

Nothing is more frustrating than being told to do something that makes no sense, by someone who’s never done it.

Does your employer understand what’s happening where you work? Yes: 23%, No: 64%, Unsure: 13%. Based on 24,723 survey responses.

What do employees say?

Worst thing about my job: “Head office not knowing what really goes on in a work place and go off figures rather then what they actually know.” – Shift Leader, JD Wetherspoon

Worst thing about my job: “Head office not understanding what it's like to work on a shop floor” — Sales advisor, Three

Worst thing about my job: “Some head office priorities seem unreasonable or illogical from a store worker perspective.” — Sales assistant, WHSmith

Who’s doing it right?

Our results show this is very hard for employers to get right. At the best employers just over 50% of Breakroom users agree that head office is aware of what’s happening where they work. At the worst this can be as low as, well, no one.

Who’s aware of what’s really happening on the frontline? Best 5 employers: Civils Construction (55%), Nandos (49%), Great Western Railway (47%), IKEA (46%), Greggs (41%). Worst 5 employers: Odeon Cinemas (0%), Lloyds Pharmacy (4%), Hermes (6%), HM Prison & Probation Service (7%), William Hill (8%)

42% of people on zero-hour contracts actually work full time

Zero hour contracts, where someone is employed with no guaranteed minimum hours, make up around 9% of our survey respondents. A further 7% are on ‘low hours’ contracts of less than 16 hours/week.

We’ve written before that there’s a place for zero hour jobs. They can offer flexibility for both employers and employees, especially for students who value fitting work around other parts of their life.

But more often than not the flexibility benefits employers far more, which isn’t fair.

Our results show that of the people on zero hours contracts, over 40% are actually working full time (35+ hours per week).

These people typically bring in a full time wage, but with no guarantee they’ll do the same next week, or beyond — an incredibly stressful situation if you’re relying on that income.

Everyone should be given a minimum of a 16 hours/week contract if they want it. This helps people plan their life around core hours with a guaranteed level of income. It also allows the employer some flexibility.

Zero hours contracts: how many hours do people actually work? Less than 16 hours: 18%, 16-23 hours: 17%, 24-34 hours: 23%, 35 hours or more: 42%

What do employees say?

Worst thing about my job: “Despite being on a 0 hour contract there are still expectations for me to work a certain amount of hours and it is difficult to reduce availability.” — Crew Member, McDonald’s

Worst thing about my job: “Not knowing if you will get enough hours to pay your bills each month.” — Casual sales assistant, Sports Direct

Worst thing about my job: “Being on a zero hour contract” — Waiting staff/bar staff, Marston’s

Who’s doing it right?

To understand whether an employer is exploiting people’s flexibility we measure the number of people who report their actual hours are within 8 hours of their contracted hours.

Consistently working 8 hours/week more than your contracted hours isn’t fair.

Which employers have the most (and least) predictable contracts? Best 5: Costco, Lloyds Pharmacy, Boots, John Lewis & Partners, River Island. Worst 5: Domino's Pizza, Sports Direct, McDonald's, Marstons, Odeon Cinemas

40% get one week notice of their rota (or less)

Short notice of shifts is a huge gripe we hear from people. When your schedule isn’t available or changes at the last minute, life can be hard.

If you don’t know how many hours you’ll be working, it’s difficult to budget for household costs. And if you don’t know when you’ll be working, it’s difficult to arrange childcare and other family things.

Everyone should get a minimum of 4 weeks notice of their rota.

While it’s not the law, 4 weeks allows employees enough notice to plan their personal life, and employers enough notice to forecast demand. For more background on this the Living Wage Foundation’s Living Hours report is excellent reading.

In 2020, only 37% of people got at least 4 weeks notice of their rota. And a whopping 40% get one week or less - making it almost impossible to plan ahead.

How much notice do hourly workers get of their shift pattern? 1 week or less: 40%, 2 weeks: 13%, 3 weeks: 10%, 4 weeks or more: 37%. Based on 22,796 survey responses.

In addition, 27% of people report that their manager often changes their shifts at short notice, causing more disruption and frustration to people. Once your shifts are set, they shouldn’t change.

What do employees say?

Worst thing about my job: “Can get 8 hr/week of work (minimum contracted) or 40hr with very little notice. Shifts are meant to be released a fortnight ahead but rarely are and usually change” — Seasonal cashier, Asda

Worst thing about my job: “The Rota is never up till the last minute. every day is a different shift.” — General sales assistant, Matalan

Worst thing about my job: “Getting the rota mostly only 3 days in advance. Some days the day before.” — Front of house, Marston’s

Who’s doing it right?

Who gets 4 weeks notice of their schedule? Best 5 employers: BT, Great Western Railway, British Airway, The Police, HM Prison & Probation Service. Worst 5: Domino's Pizza, Pizza Express, Frankie & Benny's, KFC, Pret A Manger.

59% don’t get proper sick pay

If you’re sick and can’t work your employer should pay you your full wage. It’s the basics. Let alone when there’s a pandemic on.

No one can help getting sick. And no one should have to worry about paying bills or feeding their families if they have to take sick leave.

Not getting sick pay can force people to pretend they’re not ill, spreading sickness amongst the team or customers, which no one wants, including the employer.

People isolating due to coronavirus can get the government’s statutory sick pay (SSP). But this isn’t enough for many people. And if your sickness is unrelated to coronavirus you can’t get SSP until the 4th day.

Nearly 60% of people have told us they don’t get proper sick pay. There’s simply no excuse for this any more.

How many hourly workers get proper sick pay? Yes: 32%, No: 59%, Unsure: 9%. Based on 24,984 survey responses.

What do employees say?

Worst thing about my job: “No sick pay for the first three days of absence (which encourages sick people to come in, so illness spreads like wildfire).” — Customer assistant, Tesco

Worst thing about my job: “Biggest worry is not getting my contracted hours or sick pay.” — Sales assistant, Lidl

Worst thing about my job: “no sick pay plus 3 sick days a year means you get called into the office” — Customer advisor, Argos

Who’s doing it right?

Who gets proper sick pay? Best 5: The Police, The Fire Service, Great Western Railway, Northern Rail, HM Prison & Probation Service. Worst 5: Sports Direct, Betfred, Barchester Healthcare, HC One, JD Sports.

66% of under 25s earn less than the Real Living Wage

The Real Living Wage (RLW) is calculated based on the real cost of living in the UK. It is the minimum that everyone should earn, regardless of age. (For more information about the RLW and why it’s important, see our guide to the living wage.)

Unfortunately, we see huge disparities in pay between age groups. 70% of people aged 25 or older are paid the RLW. For under 25s it’s just 34%.

Everyone should earn the RLW, because everyone should be paid equally for equal work. Under 25s consistently tell us that being paid less than their older peers is frustrating and unfair, and we agree.

Hourly pay: which ages get the Real Living Wage? Under 18s: 10%, 18-20s: 27%, 21-24s: 51%, 25s or older: 70%.

A note on our methodology

The Real Living Wage increased in May 2020 to £9.30. It’s also higher in London, at £10.75. It will increase again in May 2021.

To calculate who does and doesn’t earn the RLW, we’ve checked the employee’s hourly pay against the date they completed the survey and whether their location is inside or outside Greater London.

What do employees say?

“at very least team members should not be paid less just because of age” — Team Member-Lane Host, Hollywood Bowl

“I think the pay should also rise from the experience and how much time you have worked there not just because of age or management positions.” — Customer assistant, McDonald’s

Best and worst employers of 2020

For the first time we can share the best and worst employers of 2020, based on the Breakroom Rating. Find out more about the Breakroom Rating and how it's calculated.

Best and worst employers of 2020. Best: Great Western Railway, Northern Rail, Rolls-Royce, The Fire Service, Network Rail, Sky, Openreach, IKEA, EE, Toyota. Worst: Betfred, Frankie & Benny's, McColls, Hermes, Whitbred, Pizza Express, The Range, Burger King, HC One, Voyage Care.

See the full list including quotes from employees.


No one wants to treat their staff badly. And every employer wants to be a great place to work. So why are so many hourly workers treated so poorly?

It comes down to poor communication (and empathy) between head office and the frontline. The cultural differences between salaried teams at desks and hourly teams on their feet can be vast.

Head office holds the power to make decisions that affect people’s lives and livelihoods, but often without a good understanding of how those decisions can hurt their teams, and ultimately hurt the business.

Solving these issues is always difficult, let alone in 2020, and we don’t pretend to have any easy solutions. And when only 23% of people believe that head office understands what’s happening where they work, it’s clear that there’s a long way to go.

But the prize is worth it: employers that create good jobs perform better. They’re more productive, innovative and resilient — characteristics every employer is screaming out for right now.

So if you’re an employer, take some time to think about the conditions you’re creating for your hourly workforce, and how you’d rate on the issues discussed.

If you’re looking for a new job, or you’re just not sure if you’re getting a fair deal, take the survey and see if there’s something better out there for you in 2021.

If you’d like to learn more about Breakroom and our data, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us at

Published on 11 December 2020