Rest breaks at work: what are employees entitled to?

We all need a break from time to time. Working through the day isn't healthy, no matter how busy things might get.

Business owners and managers need to know the specifics of what time they can grant, both for legal reasons, and to protect everyone's wellbeing. There are different minimum allowances for different types of people and businesses.

Are you giving your staff the right amount of break time? And have you thought about giving them more?

Employee entitlements for rest breaks

The minimum rest break for those over 18 is 20 minutes. This applies if they work more than 6 hours per day, and must be a genuine break that's uninterrupted - whether it's a short break or lunch break. It doesn't necessarily have to be a paid break; this depends entirely on their contract of employment.

You can decide at what point employees take their rest break during work time, as long as the following conditions are met:

  • The break must be taken in a single, uninterrupted go somewhere in the middle of the shift (it can't be at the beginning or the end).
  • Workers are entitled to spend their rest break away from their desk or workstation (i.e. away from the space where they do their work).

If you say the employee must return to their work before that 20 minute period is finished, then it doesn't count as a rest break. Keep in mind that unless their contract specifically states otherwise, no employee has the legal right to take smoke breaks, or to be paid for their rest break.

Other types of rest break

Workers are also entitled to daily rest. They have the right to a minimum of 11 hours rest between shifts - for example, if they finish work at 20:00, they can't be ordered to return to work any earlier than 07:00 the next morning.

There are also weekly rest entitlements that you're required to grant all employees. The law states that they're entitled to an uninterrupted 24 hours without working each week, or an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each fortnight. These are fundamental rights for workers in the UK, and employers have to provide them by law.

Young or adolescent workers

The rules regarding rest breaks are a little different for young or adolescent workers. The definition of a young worker is anyone who is above school age, but under 18. If a youngster works for a period of more than 4.5 hours, they're entitled to a minimum rest break of 30 minutes.

Additionally, a young worker must be given 12 uninterrupted hours of rest in a 24-hour period, and 48 hours off work per week. These entitlements can only be excluded or altered in exceptional circumstances.

Workers who aren't entitled to rest breaks

There are workers who are exempt from the right to the three general types of rest break (short breaks, lunch breaks and non-work time). They are those who work in any of the following:

  • Roles in which they are free to choose the hours they work (a managing director, for example) or where the working time isn't measured.
  • The armed forces or emergency services (including police) whilst dealing with an exceptional situation.
  • Sea, air or road transport workers ('mobile workers') - these folks are often covered by special rules that entitle them to different rest rights. Mobile workers who aren't covered by special rules typically have the right to rest regularly in order to protect their health and safety (and that of the general public).

You should know that it's a legal requirement to grant these rest breaks to employees. If you fail to do this, workers will have just cause to express a grievance in writing, and could even have grounds to take their claim to an employment tribunal.

Rethinking breaktime

Many businesses offer more than the minimum rest break requirements in order to keep their employees happy and productive. For example, lunch hours are usually much better than half hours. Some like to power through with a short lunch and get the day over with as soon as possible, but if you include the time spent leaving your desk, waiting for the lift, walking to the sandwich shop, and walking back to the office, that half hour is eaten away very quickly.

That said, you're free to set your business's own breaks as preferred, as long as you adhere to the minimum rest break requirements set out in law.

Any further experimentation leads down an interesting route, towards 6-hour work days, 4-day work weeks, and all sorts of unconventional work routines. Rather than considering the minimum break time you can get away with for your employees, this might be a chance to rethink how you do breaks entirely.

With better wellbeing comes better productivity, so why not try granting more generous break times, and see what happens? You could even suggest employees take as long as they want on break - as long as the work gets done.