Work Break Laws: What are the Rules?

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Under UK work break laws, and in accordance with the Working Time Regulations (1998) and Health and Safety Executive requirements, workers and employees have a right to take regular and uninterrupted periods of rest, with variations depending on age and categories of position.

These statutory periods of rest are split into three categories:

  • rest breaks taken during a working day, for instance, a tea break or a lunch break
  • the period of rest between each working day, i.e. the amount of time between ending one working day and beginning the next
  • how many rest days you are entitled to take in a working week

The recommended amount of rest for a worker or employee is 90 hours per week.

Your employer’s responsibility

Your employer has a responsibility to ensure that your health and safety is not jeopardised by your work conditions, especially where those conditions are repetitive such as when working on a production line or at a computer.

They must also ensure that your work hours adhere to the statutory work breaks laid out below, although many employers will allow additional or longer periods of rest than the statutory requirement. These will be laid out in your employment contract or staff handbook.

Work breaks if you are aged 18 or over

If you are at least 18 years old, during each working day that lasts at least 6 continuous hours you are entitled to take a work break of a minimum of 20 minutes.

Between each day that you work, you must be allowed 11 hours to rest, and in each complete week that you work you are entitled to take one rest day.

Work breaks for younger workers

British work break laws state that for workers who are over school leaving age but under 18 years old, the rest period entitlement is 30 minutes where they work over 4.5 hours in a day, preferably taken as one complete break.

Between working days, they are entitled to a rest period of 12 hours and per each complete week worked, they must be allowed to take 2 days or 48 hours rest.

Compensatory work breaks

Where it is not possible for a worker to take their work break entitlement, they may be eligible for compensatory rest for the same amount of time as missed.
Scenarios where a worker could become eligible for compensatory work breaks include, but are not limited to:

  • working shifts that do not allow for the full amount of rest between working day entitlement to be taken after finishing one shift and before beginning the next
  • the place of work is not close to the worker’s home and travel to work takes up a considerable amount of time
  • the worker is employed at numerous sites which are not close to each other and involve lengthy journey time
  • the worker is employed in an industry which has busy seasons, for instance, farming or retail, during which it may be difficult for the worker to take their full rest entitlement
  • an unexpected, exceptional or emergency incident occurs that prevents the worker from taking their periods of rest
  • the position the worker is employed in requires 24 hour cover with no interruptions, such as a health care professional
  • the working day is divided into blocks that do not follow immediately one from each other
  • an agreement to remove or change work breaks is drawn up between the employer, trade unions or the workforce
    security or surveillance work

Where it isn’t possible to take compensatory work breaks, your employer should ensure that your health and safety needs are being met, for instance, by carrying out an assessment of your ongoing health and work conditions or reducing your workload.

Work breaks when working on a computer

Although the Working Time Regulations do not individually legislate for workers who use a computer, your employer is obligated to ensure that your computer work station set up meets with health and safety regulations, including taking the statutory breaks away from your work station.

Are work breaks paid?

Your employer is not obligated to pay you for your work breaks. This is completely down to their discretion.

Generally, the rest between working days and the weekly rest will not be paid, but you may be paid for work breaks during your working day. Details of whether your work breaks are paid or unpaid will be laid out in your employment contract or your employer’s staff handbook.

Can your employer tell you when to take your work break?

Your employer can tell you when to take your work break as long as the break is taken in one block of time around the middle of the day and you are allowed to leave your workstation for that work break.

How do you find out what your work breaks are?

Your work breaks (daily, between work days and weekly) will generally be outlined in your employment contract. Where they are not, check your employer’s staff handbook for details of your assigned work breaks.

Exceptions to work break laws

There are a number of exceptions to the general work break entitlement. These include, but are not limited to:

  • members of the armed forces, police force and emergency services during an exceptional or disaster scenario
  • where the worker has complete autonomy over what hours they work, such as a managing director, or where the position doesn’t have set hours
  • sea, air or road transport workers, such as lorry drivers
  • domestic servants working in a private residence

The rules for taking work breaks for road transport workers are covered by a separate section of the Working Time Regulations which is further enforced by the Vehicle and Operations Services Agency.

What if your employer ends your work break before it is finished?

If your employer instructs you to return to work before your break is complete, then it does not count as a break.

You are therefore allowed to take another break for the entire allotted break time at a later time.

What to do if your employer prevents you from taking a work break

Where you are prevented from taking a work break, whether that is a daily break, rest between work days or your weekly break, your first step should be to speak to your manager in an attempt to resolve the issue.

If after speaking to your manager the issue has not been resolved, your next step is to follow your employer’s grievance procedure. A copy of this can be found in your employer’s staff handbook.

Further to that, you may wish to approach Acas to discuss early conciliation.

Finally, you may decide to make a claim against your employer through an employment tribunal or the Health and Safety Executive. Such a claim must, however, be made within three months of the problem arising.

Why take legal advice?

Where you believe your employer has treated you unfairly and prevented you from taking any kind of break that you are entitled to, take specialist legal advice to inform you of your rights, check that you have a case to answer, and guide you through whichever path to resolution you decide to take.