Legal breaks at work – what employees are legally entitled to

If you work 8 hours a day without taking any breaks, you won’t be performing to the best of your ability after a while. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress), but only up to a point, after which it decreases. You can read more on this in our article on the Pareto principle. Here are some reason why we should prioritise breaks at work. They:

  • keep us from getting bored and losing focus
  • help us retain information and make connections
  • help us reevaluate our goals

In short, an employee’s health will suffer if they continue to work for prolonged periods without any rest. It’s better to get some fresh air and get the blood flowing rather than staying seated all day and drinking copious amounts of coffee to stay awake. For this reason, it makes sense for employees to take breaks. However, although there are guidelines on how many breaks a worker should take throughout the day, they aren’t legally enforced.

What constitutes a break?

The purpose of a break is to interrupt working time and to promote and maintain the employee’s recovery and health. In addition, taking regular breaks can improve an employee’s long-term performance. The Working Time Regulations 1998 introduced restrictions on the number of hours an employee can work and have a right to rest breaks, rest periods, and holidays. Unless a worker’s contract says so, they don’t get paid for rest breaks.

No work should be undertaken during break times and the employee should be able to take it away from their workstation. If your employer tells you to keep in contact with them during your break in case you’re needed, this doesn’t count as a rest break.

The Working Time Regulations state that your employer is required to provide adequate rest breaks if the tasks undertaken are quite monotonous or the work rate is predetermined and can put the worker’s health and safety at risk e.g. sorting products on a conveyor belt.

Rest breaks if you’re over 18

If you’re 18 or over and work for more than 6 hours a day, you have the right to:

  • an uninterrupted rest break of at least 20 minutes to be taken all at once and during the day (not at the beginning or end of the shift)
  • 11 hours rest between each shift (e.g. shift ends at 9pm, next shift must begin at 8am or later the following day)
  • 1 rest day per working week (or 2 days in a fortnight)

Rest breaks if you’re under 18

Young workers are defined as being 16 to 18 and are usually entitled to:

  • a 30-minute break if they work more than 4.5 hours
  • 12 hours rest between each shift
  • 2 rest days per week

The only time a young worker isn’t entitled to these breaks is in exceptional circumstances e.g. if work has to be done and another worker has had to leave. This, however, would only happen if there isn’t a worker over 18 who can do the work, or the work is temporary and needs to be done straightaway. If this is the case, the young worker has the right to compensatory rest, which equates to the amount of rest that they should have had. However, it has to be taken within the following 3 weeks.

Exemptions to the breaks

Not everyone is entitled to these rest breaks mentioned above for over 18 year olds, including:

  • the armed forces
  • emergency services
  • those working in sea, air, or road transport
  • workers who choose their own working hours

The regulations regarding road transport are quite complicated. If you drive a goods vehicle or a passenger-carrying vehicle, there are certain rules you have to adhere to. Depending on which type of vehicle you’re driving and which country you’re in, the EU rules, AETR rules, or GB domestic rules will apply.

Smoking breaks

Although there is no statutory right to “smoking breaks”, employees can use their 20-minute (or longer) break to light up. The smoking ban in 2007 made it illegal for people to smoke indoors, meaning workers could be fined up to £200 (or up to £50 in Scotland) if they smoke in the work place (this doesn’t apply to e-cigarettes). Businesses can be fined up to £2,500 if they fail to implement this. It’s recommended for companies to set out their own policy regarding smoking so that everyone is on the same page. Make sure you specify:

  • when smoking can take place i.e. allowed during working hours or not
  • where smoking is permitted on work premises
  • the rules on smoking in company vehicles
  • what happens if you breach the rules

Breastfeeding breaks

There is no legal right for mothers to have breastfeeding breaks at work although employers have to meet their obligations to employees who breastfeed under health and safety law, flexible working law, and discrimination law. This means that the employer has to do everything in their power to make sure the mother isn’t unfairly treated. If the employer won’t allow the employee to take a break or change working patterns in order to breastfeed or pump milk, this could be considered unlawful sex discrimination.

Please note the legal disclaimer relating to this article.