Legal Breaks at Work in the UK

09 July 2019

As an employer, you must know employment law entitles your employees to take breaks at work. Aside from this being a legal requirement, it is vital that you understand the reason behind rest breaks at work.

Permitting this to take place is crucial for the mental health and wellbeing of your workforce, something that can keep them productive and happy whilst at work.

Let’s look at the different rules of work breaks

Breaks and rest periods at work

Under UK employment law, the Working Time Regulations (1998) and Health and Safety Executive requirements, workers and employees have a right to take regular and uninterrupted rest breaks at work, with variations depending on age and categories of position.

We split these statutory periods of rest into three categories:

  • Rest breaks staff take during a working day, for instance, a tea break or a lunch break.
  • The daily rest period between each working day, i.e. the time between ending one working day and beginning the next.
  • How many rest days law entitles staff to take in a working week.

Legal break time at work

UK law provides legal requirements for breaks at work. It entitles all workers aged 18 and over to take at least 20 minutes of break time at work if they work for over six hours in a day. You do not have to pay them for this period, but they must be able to switch off from work during this time.

Employers can choose to facilitate this in different ways. One of the most popular options is incorporating this into lunch breaks at work; many employment contracts offer a half-hour or full hour unpaid lunch break in the middle of the day.

Whilst the 20-minute period needs to be provided in order to remain compliant with UK law breaks at work, you can provide additional break entitlement at work, such as permitting a tea break.

It can be worthwhile including your staff’s rights to break within their employment contract to avoid confusion.

There are no break entitlements for employees working shifts of 6 hours or fewer. However, as an employer, you have a responsibility towards your employees’ wellbeing, so if they need a drink, or have to go to the bathroom, oblige the request, so long as they don’t start taking advantage.

Can you tell your staff when to take their work break?

Yes, you can. As long as they take the break in one block of time around the middle of the day and you allow them to leave their workstation for that work break.

Exceptions to rest break rules

There are exceptions to consider. Some workers aren’t entitled to the three types—this applies to employees working in:

  • The police, armed forces or other emergency services.
  • A job where the work is not measured (managing director).
  • Sea transport.
  • Air or road transport (mobile workers).

This doesn’t mean these employees are without rest rights. They just don’t have the entitlement that other workers have under the Working Time Regulations.

Daily rest breaks

Law also entitles staff members to breaks between their shifts or working days. This is to ensure health and safety.

Your staff members have the right to 11 hours of rest between working days, for example: if they finish work at 8 pm, they shouldn’t start work again until 7 am the next day.

Weekly rest breaks

Finally, the law entitles staff to have days off during the month. This improves staff wellbeing and is legally obligated for you to provide.

They have the right to either:

  • An uninterrupted 24 hours with no work each week.
  • An uninterrupted 48 hours with no work each fortnight.

This again is the statutory minimum, and you may offer more or different breaks. You should state this in the contract of employment to avoid any confusion.

Smoke breaks at work

Law does not automatically entitle employees to take breaks to smoke. However, they can use their statutory legal breaks at work to smoke outside of the workplace if they choose to.

If your company provides a one-hour lunch break, you may consider letting staff have smoke breaks down the day, however they will need to dock this time off their lunch. For example, if they have a 10 minute smoking break in the morning, they could then only take a 50-minute lunch break.

However, in order to ensure compliance with rules on breaks at work, they must have at least a 20-minute lunch break.

Toilet breaks at work

You should not seek to limit the number of times your staff go to the toilet whilst working – such an action could breach their human rights.

While there is no legal guidance on toilet breaks at work, it can indirectly affect them.

However, an employee is regularly going to the toilet, you can have a conversation with them to find out if there is an issue you should know.

If you suspect they are going to the toilet as a regular excuse to avoid doing work, you may go down a disciplinary route, however, this should be a last resort.

Drink breaks at work

Again, you should not try to limit the number of times employees go to get a drink, such as water. However, you may want to limit the number of drinks they can make per day, as this will inevitably take longer.

Pregnancy rights at work breaks

You should remember that pregnant employees may need to use toilet facilities and drink more than usual, and you need to make allowances for this. Failing to do so means you will indirectly discriminate against them.

They may also need additional breaks as an adjustment as discussed with a medical practitioner, depending on their role and personal circumstances.

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