The rules on rest breaks at work can quickly become complex, but UK employers must know and fulfil their legal obligations.
If you fail to meet the minimum requirements, or to offer a suitable compensatory alternative, employees could make a claim against you before an employment tribunal.
Rest breaks at work laws
Employers must understand legislation regarding different types of rest break, the frequency and duration of rest breaks based on the length of the employee’s shift, and how many hours per week an employee can work.
The rules governing employee rest breaks are primarily set out in the Working Time Regulations (1998). You can also find information in the Working Time Regulations pertaining to holiday time and paid time off.
Further rules in the Equality Act 2010 relate to breaks at work for different types of employee; for example, employees with disabilities may be entitled to longer breaks, or more breaks throughout the working day. The Equality Act also discusses rest break rules for employees in high-risk jobs.
In addition to the minimum statutory requirements for breaks at work, employees may also be entitled to further rest breaks if this is stipulated in their employment contract.
Types of work breaks
Workers over the age of 18 are generally entitled to three types of work break: rest breaks at work, daily rest and weekly rest.
Daily rest breaks at work
Unless otherwise stated in their contract of employment, an employee can work for up to, and including, six hours without being legally entitled to a rest break.
When an employee works a shift of longer than six hours, you must allow them to take a break of at least 20 minutes.
The employee has a right to take this 20-minute break away from the workplace and without interruption. This means you cannot force them to take two or more shorter breaks, nor can you expect them to perform work-related duties during their break.
Furthermore, breaks at work cannot be scheduled to occur at the beginning or end of the employee’s shift.
While you may choose to pay employees for their daily rest breaks, this is not required by law.
Contrary to common assumption, employees have no further right to rest breaks beyond the 20-minute minimum once the six-hour threshold has been surpassed.
However, it is common and fair practice for employers to allow an employee additional breaks at work when they are engaged in longer shifts.
Though you may not have the legal obligation to provide extra rest breaks, you do have a duty of care to ensure no employee works in conditions which may be detrimental to their health or general wellbeing.
In addition, an employer should give an employee enough breaks to ensure their health and safety is not put at risk if that work is ‘monotonous’.
Employers have the right to set out within an employment contract at what point during a shift and employee takes their rest break. The specific timing of breaks at work can also be dictated by managerial staff shift by shift, to position them at the most convenient and appropriate time for all parties. Though, as stated above, breaks cannot be taken at the very start or very end of the shift.
Daily and weekly rest
In addition to daily breaks at work, your employees are entitled to a minimum period of uninterrupted rest each day and each week. These rules must be accommodated when outlining employee rotas and scheduling shifts. The minimum rest requirements are as follows:
- At least 11 hours rest each day
- At least 24 hours rest every seven days, or, 48 hours of rest every 14 days
Though employees are entitled to this amount of daily and weekly rest by law, they may choose to ‘opt out’ and work additional hours.
Exceptions to employee rest break rules
Employees under 18 years old are subject to different rules. Unlike adult workers, underage members of your workforce are entitled to a 30-minute break for any shift more than 4.5 hours long, and a minimum of 12 hours rest each day.
There are few other exceptions to employee rest break rules that apply to certain industries and job types. These are:
- Emergency services and armed forces personnel are not covered by the Working Time Regulations.
- Transport sector employees are usually subject to industry-specific rest break rules.
- The Working Time Regulations do not apply to jobs that have no set hours or for which the work is not ‘measured’.
Compensatory rest breaks
In instances where an employee is unable to take rest breaks or time off work in accordance with the Working Time Regulations, they may be able to take ‘compensatory’ rest at a later point.
This may be the case for employees who would usually be entitled to rest breaks but cannot take them, as doing so would make it impossible to fulfil some intrinsic and essential aspect of their role, such as:
- Hospital employees and medical professionals
- Those who work in security or surveillance
- Shift workers who cannot take the usual minimum amount of rest between the end of one shift and the start of the next
The rules surrounding compensatory rest breaks are not straightforward. Where the demands of a specific role prevent standard breaks at work being taken, employers have a responsibility to facilitate compensatory rest breaks; however, this can be achieved in a number of ways. For instance, an air traffic controller who cannot leave his or her post for an uninterrupted 20-minute break may be permitted to take several, shorter breaks instead.
Toilet breaks at work
Nowhere in The Working Time Regulations or The Equality Act does it state that employees are legally entitled to toilet breaks. It is also relatively uncommon now for toilet breaks to be mentioned in an employee’s employment contract.
While employers could impose restrictions on the number and length of toilet breaks taken throughout a shift, it is generally considered bad practice to do so.
Restricting toilet visits could have a detrimental impact on employee comfort and wellbeing.
In this respect, toilet breaks are less of a ‘working time’ issue and more the domain of health and safety. Though the consensus is that toilet breaks should not be limited in an employment contract, employers can discipline workers for taking excessive toilet breaks if the problem is serious enough to qualify as misconduct.
Mandatory rest breaks
Employees in some industries are subject to a different set of rules concerning mandatory breaks at work. This is the case in any line of work where safety would be a serious concern, should the employee fail to take regular breaks. Drivers of heavy goods vehicles (HGV) are one such example of this, as regular and sufficient rest breaks are essential to ensure they remain attentive behind the wheel.
If any of your employees work in roles that require mandatory breaks, you must take steps to ensure they are fulfilling this requirement.
Breaks for smoking
Employers are not legally required to offer employees smoking breaks. The argument could be made that impeding an employee’s ability to smoke would cause undue stress or impact the quality of their work.
However, offering additional rest breaks exclusively to the employees who smoke would likely cause unrest and dejection among non-smoking members of the workforce. If you feel smoking breaks are warranted, you should endeavour to make additional, shorter breaks available to all employees.
Breaks for religious reasons
There is no legislation in The Working Time Regulations pertaining to breaks at work for religious reasons. This means that your workforce has no legal right to take breaks for religious activities, or on the basis that it is a religious requirement. Though, you may still choose to offer rest breaks for certain religious reasons (prayer, for instance) and set this out in your employee’s contract.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.