An Employer’s Guide to Legal Rest Breaks in the UK

Posted on Wednesday, 31st May '23

Duane Jackson by Duane Jackson

Most workers are entitled to one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break when working more than six hours at a time during a working day, as well as daily and weekly rest breaks. Similarly, Working Time Regulations state most workers should not have to work more than an average of 48 hours a week. Factoring in the correct rest breaks is vital, but with various regulations in place, it can make managing rest breaks quite complicated for staff. In addition to this, some workers, such as those in the emergency services and armed forces, do not have an automatic legal right to rest breaks. So, how are rest breaks accounted for and accurately calculated?

Whether workers are paid for rest breaks or not will depend on an individual’s employment contract. This will be at the discretion of the employer.

This guide will take you through the laws for employee breaks in the UK and the exceptions to the rule.

What are the three common types of rest breaks?

By law, as set out in The Working Time Regulations 1998, UK workers aged 18 and over are usually entitled to three types of rest breaks: rest breaks at work, daily rest, and weekly rest. Meanwhile, young workers, including anyone under 18 years old and over school leaving age, cannot usually be made to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. So, how are these broken down?

Rest breaks at work

Workers are legally entitled to one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break when working more than 6 hours a day.

The break could be a lunch break or tea break and does not have to be paid by the employer, depending on what is written into a worker’s employment contract.

These rest breaks should be planned in advance and taken during the working day itself, not at the start or end of the working day. Any worker also has the right to take their rest break uninterrupted and away from where they work, such as away from their desk.

When someone’s working day is more than six hours, they do not automatically qualify for more rest breaks. Therefore, if someone works a 12-hour shift they are not entitled to a 40-minute break, although employers should consider it and, in most cases, grant longer breaks.

It has become traditional in many UK industries to provide a one-hour lunch break every working day, though studies suggest as few as one in five people are still taking their full lunch hour.

Daily rest breaks

Workers are legally entitled to 11 hours of rest between working days.

For example, if someone finishes work at 9pm, they should not work again until 8am the following day.

Weekly rest breaks

Workers have the right to the following weekly rest:

  • 24 hours without work each week.
  • 48 hours without work each fortnight.

Weekly rest breaks should be uninterrupted. A worker may be entitled to more or different rights to rest breaks depending on their employment contract.

By law, employees and workers have the right to rest wherever they’re working such as an office or home. The right to rest applies to:

  • Employees
  • Workers
  • Agency workers
  • Apprentices
  • Casual and seasonal workers
  • Doctors in training
  • Zero-hours workers

Why are rest breaks important?

As a legal requirement, rest breaks are important because they protect an organisation, its staff and customers.

When staff do not get enough rest breaks, it could impact their ability to work and lead to:

  • Accidents or mistakes.
  • Poor physical and mental health.
  • Financial cost to an organisation through poor productivity.
  • Reputational damage to an organisation due to lack of worker support.
  • Legal action (employment tribunals, enforcement proceedings by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority.)

Therefore, breaks at work are a vital part of working life for legal reasons, staff welfare, and business compliance.

Are there exceptions to rest breaks at work?

Yes, the following categories of workers are not entitled to the three common types of rest breaks mentioned above:

  • Armed forces, police, or emergency services during times of disaster or catastrophe.
  • Workers who chose their hours of work such as a company managing director, or where the work is not measured by set hours.
  • Sea transport workers involved in the movement of goods and/or passengers using merchant ships.
  • Air or road transport workers, also known as mobile workers. Workers in this category are likely to be covered by special rules that give them different rights to rest breaks.

Where mobile workers are not covered by special rules around rest breaks, they usually have the right to regular breaks. This ensures health and safety requirements can be managed within their places of work.

Drivers and young workers are subject to special rules regarding rest breaks. For example, where a working day is less than 8 hours 30 minutes, a person must take a break after 5 hours 30 minutes of driving and the break must last at least 30 minutes.

What are the rules for rest breaks for young workers?

Anyone above school leaving age and below the age of 18 is classed as a young worker and can’t usually work for more than 8 hours each day or 40 hours per week. Young workers are commonly entitled to:

  • A 30-minute rest break if they work more than 4.5 hours.
  • 12 hours of daily rest.
  • 48 hours of weekly rest.

Young workers are limited in the hours they can work at night. They are usually unable to work between:

  • 10pm and 6am – where a contract states that a person has to work after 10pm, they must finish by 11pm and not start work again until 7am.
  • Midnight until 4am.

However, there are exceptions to these restrictions for young workers who work in hospitals, retail, catering, hotels, agriculture, and deliveries including post and newspapers. Young workers in cultural, artistic, sporting, or advertising roles may also fall outside the restrictions.

In some cases, young workers won’t be entitled to rest breaks or daily rest at work. An example of this is where they must work because of an exceptional event such as an accident. However, this must only occur when there is no worker over 18 who can do the work, or when the work is temporary and must be undertaken immediately.

What is compensatory rest?

Where workers do not have the right to specific rest breaks, they may be entitled to compensatory rest which is generally the same length of the time as the break itself, or part of the break, that has been missed.

A worker may be entitled to compensatory rest for a variety of reasons including:

  • Shift work where a worker can’t take daily or weekly rest breaks between the end of one shift and the start of another.
  • Your job requires cover at all times, for example, a hospital worker or security guard.
  • They are involved in seasonal industry work which is busier at certain times of the year like agriculture, tourism, and retail.

Compensatory rest should be taken at the nearest opportunity to when the actual rest break was scheduled to happen.

Compensatory rest for young workers

Where young workers are not entitled to rest breaks or daily rest, they have the right to compensatory rest. This should involve the same amount of rest as in ordinary circumstances. Compensatory rest can be taken immediately after any rest that’s been missed, or at any time within the following three weeks.

Are rest breaks for health and safety reasons?

In the UK, employees should be provided with enough rest breaks to ensure their health and safety isn’t put at risk or compromised. This especially applies to those involved in monotonous work, where there is a high level of repetition, such as on a production line, or where there is heavy, manual work.

However, cleaners, au pairs, or any other domestic workers in a private house are not entitled to rest breaks for health and safety reasons due to the nature of their work and the need for constant availability.

What are smoking breaks and extra rest breaks?

Smoking isn’t permitted in any enclosed workplace, public building, or on public transport anywhere in the UK. Businesses can be fined up to £2,500 if they don’t take measures to stop people smoking in the workplace or up to £1,000 for failure to display ‘no smoking’ signs.

However, employers can offer additional or extra rest breaks during a working day. These could include:

  • A one-hour lunch break.
  • Employee smoking breaks.

However, workers don’t have the right to take smoking breaks or get paid for rest breaks unless their employment contract says so.

What are disability rest breaks?

Workers may request additional rest breaks due to a disability. In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination based on their disabilities and requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs. In such cases, reasonable adjustments could include the provision of additional rest breaks, flexible working hours to attend medical or personal care, and any other measures that help disabled workers manage their condition.

Employers should also provide support for anyone who is disabled and requires additional help when they are applying for a job.

It is important to note that nobody has to reveal their disability to a current or potential employer. If they do inform their employer, the employer has a legal responsibility to support them where needed.

What are religious breaks at work?

There are clear rules and guidance for employers and employees regarding religious breaks. These are designed to reduce discrimination in the workplace around religion or beliefs.

In this instance, religion refers to any religion or lack of religion, while belief refers to any religious or philosophical belief or lack of one.

In 2018 the UK Government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) published a detailed guide on religion and belief discrimination in the workplace which includes work breaks.

In summary, an employer is under no legal obligation to automatically give staff time off for religious holidays or festivals, time to pray, or a place to pray. However, employers should consider requests sympathetically and be as reasonable and flexible as possible. Refusing a request without a justifiable business reason could amount to discrimination.

When should employees take their break?

Employers often tell employees when to take rest breaks during their working period. It also dictates that:

  • The break is taken in one go during the working day, but not at the beginning or the end.
  • Workers spend their break away from their desks, workstation, or the place where they work.

However, it does not count as a rest break if an employer orders an employee to return to work before the end of their break.

Flexible workers also fall outside these rules and are likely to arrange their own rest breaks directly with their employers, depending on their individual working patterns.

What if an employer won’t allow rest breaks?

Employers legally must let employees take rest breaks they’re entitled to. If employers fail to do this, the employee could make a claim to an employment tribunal which settles workplace disputes. Not allowing rest breaks for workers could also result in a written grievance from the employee or intervention from HR departments and union representatives.

Still unsure about legal break entitlement for your employees?

Staffology’s cloud-based HR digital platform supports your business by reinforcing legal break requirements for your workers. Get a free demo now.

Duane Jackson, May 31st, 2023

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