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Law guide

Rest breaks

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Rest breaks

Most workers have the right to take breaks, but whether or not you are paid for them depends on the terms of your employment contract. There are special rules about rest breaks for some types of worker - especially those working in the transport industry.

Types of breaks

You will normally have a variety of different breaks from work. These can be broken down into three types:

  • 'Rest breaks' - lunch breaks, tea breaks and other short breaks during the day
  • 'Daily rest' - the break between finishing one day's work and starting the next (for most people this is overnight between week days)
  • 'Weekly rest' - whole days when you don't come into work (for many people this will be the weekend)

The second and third types of break are almost never paid (unless you have to remain 'on call'). The first type is often paid but doesn't have to be unless your contract says so.

How much break time do you get?

The amount of break time you get is usually agreed with your employer. It may be written down somewhere or might just be part of your employer's standard practice.

The law sets requirements on rest breaks in two ways:

  • There are minimum rest breaks set down in the Working Time Regulations.
  • Under health and safety legislation

Some people are not covered by the Working Time Regulations - mainly those working in the transport industry (see below for more).

Your employer must give you at least the rest breaks required by the Working Time Regulations but must also ensure that your health and safety is not put at risk. This means that your employer might have to give you more than the amount set out in the regulations, if this reduces a health and safety risk.

If you use a computer

If you use display screen equipment - computers, for example - your employer should plan your work so that you can take regular breaks from looking at the screen.

Working time regulations

Minimum breaks are set out in the Working Time Regulations. These regulations apply to most workers but there are some exceptions (which are explained below).

The regulations also give you rights to paid holiday, limits on your working week, and limits on night work.

Rest breaks - a break during your working day

The regulations give you a right to one rest break during your working day. A lunch or coffee break can count as your rest break. Additional breaks might be given by your contract of employment. There's no statutory right to 'smoking breaks'.

If you're an adult worker (i.e. over 18), you'll normally have the right to a 20 minute rest break if you're expected to work for more than six hours at a stretch.

You're classed as a 'young worker' if you're under 18 but over school leaving age. In England you're under school leaving age until the end of summer term of the school year in which you turn 16. In Scotland, you're under school leaving age until the last date in May or the first day of the Christmas holidays / 21st December depending on when your 16th birthday is.

A young worker is entitled to a 30-minute rest break if they are expected to work for more than four and a half hours at a stretch.

The requirements are:

  • The break must be in one block
  • It can't be taken off one end of the working day - it must be somewhere in the middle
  • You're allowed to spend it away from the place on your employer's premises where you work
  • Your employer can say when the break must be taken, as long as it meets these conditions
Daily rest - a break between working days

If you're an adult worker you usually have the right to a break of at least 11 hours between working days. A young worker has a right to a break of at least 12 hours between working days.

Weekly rest - the 'weekend'

If you're an adult worker you usually have the right to 24 hours clear of work each week or 48 hours clear each fortnight.

If you're a young worker (see above), you must have at least 48 hours clear of work every week. If the nature of the job makes it unavoidable, e.g. if you work split shifts, then the 48 hours could be reduced to 36 hours so long as time off is given later in compensation.

Exceptions to the regulations

The rights to breaks apply differently to you if:

  • You have to travel a long distance from your home to get to work or you constantly work in different places making it difficult to work to a set pattern
  • You're doing security or surveillance-based work
  • You're working in an industry with busy peak periods, like agriculture, retail or tourism
  • There's an emergency or risk of an accident
  • The job needs round-the-clock staffing (e.g. hospital work)
  • You're employed in the rail industry and you work on board trains or your activities are irregular or linked to seeing that trains run on time
Instead of getting normal breaks, you're entitled to 'compensatory rest', which is rest taken later, ideally during the same or following working day. The principle is that everyone gets 90 hours rest a week on average, although some rest may come slightly later than normal.

There are separate special rules for mobile workers in air, sea and road transport. The armed forces, emergency services and police are excluded in some circumstances.

Do you have to take your breaks?

Because rest breaks can be unpaid you may not want to take them. Your employer can agree to this. It is recommended that you do take your rest breaks though, as they are there to protect your health and safety. Your employer can make you take a break if your contract allows them to.

What to do if you aren't allowed to take a break

If your job is organised so that you can't take breaks, or if your employer doesn't allow you to take them, you should first raise the matter with your manager. If you have an employee representative like a trade union official or health and safety representative, they can take up the matter for you. Ultimately you can make a claim to an employment tribunal (industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland), or to the Health and Safety Executive.