Rest break entitlement at work in the UK

Learn how to align with the Working Time Regulations, manage break entitlements efficiently, and foster a workplace that prioritises employee well-being.


James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.


18 December 2023


11 July 2024
4 min read
Rest break entitlement at work in the UK

Employees and workers in the UK have clear rights when it comes to rest break entitlements, but employment law that covers this can be confusing. It is essential that businesses and employers are aware of staff entitlement to work breaks, and how long they are expected to grant.

In the UK, the details of break time at work, holidays and working time are covered by the Working Time Regulations 1998. The key areas mentioned are:

  • The average working time for workers and employees
  • Daily and weekly break entitlement at work
  • Minimum annual leave
  • Additional protections for night workers
  • Increased rest time for younger workers
  • Limits on excessive overtime or working hours
  • Rights for workers to voluntarily opt out of the 48-hour working week limit
  • Employers must inform their employees and workers of their rights, while also keeping records of their rest periods and working hours


Rest breaks

Employees are entitled to 24 hours of uninterrupted rest every seven days. Workers are entitled to a minimum of 11 hours of rest a day.

When employees work in excess of six hours, they are entitled to a break of at least 20, uninterrupted minutes. The time worked must be greater than six hours in order to qualify, and this applies to longer shifts, such as eight, ten or twelve hours.

There is no break entitlement for a 4-hour or 6-hour shift, as shifts under six hours do not qualify. However, employers should bear in mind that even providing breaks for shorter shifts support the health and well-being of their workers.

Breaks must be allowed during the shift, rather than the start or end, and may be taken away from the workspace.


Are there any exceptions to the rules?

Younger workers, or people carrying out specific types of work, do face some exceptions to these rules:

  • If children who are under 18 work for more than 4.5 hours, they get a 30-minute break. They are also entitled to 12 hours of uninterrupted rest each day instead of 11.
  • People in the emergency services, police force, or the armed forces are all excluded from rest break rules.
  • People who work in sea, road, or air transport are also excluded from rest break rules.
  • Workers or staff who choose their own hours, or whose work is not measured, can exclude themselves from the rules.

In some industries, such as driving, it is compulsory for employees to take regular rest breaks. For HGV drivers operating vehicles over 3.5 tonnes within the UK or between the UK and EU, EU Driver Hours Rules apply. These include:

  • Driving Time: EU regulations specify that lorry drivers must not drive more than 9 hours per day, extendable to 10 hours no more than twice a week.
  • Weekly Driving Limits: Drivers must not exceed 56 hours in a week.
  • Fortnightly Driving Limits: The total driving time over any two consecutive weeks must not exceed 90 hours.
  • Daily Rest: Drivers must have a regular daily rest period of 11 hours, which can be reduced to 9 hours no more than three times between weekly rests.
  • Mandatory Rest Breaks: After 4.5 hours of driving, a driver must take an uninterrupted break of 45 minutes. This can be split into two periods: the first at least 15 minutes and the second at least 30 minutes long, provided they are taken within the 4.5 hours.

It can be easy for mobile workers, such as drivers, to miss their rest breaks. Employers should endeavour to make sure that mobile workers comply with regulations, including rest breaks.


Compensatory rest

When employees are not entitled to rest breaks, there may be certain cases when they can take something called compensatory rest. This is a right for both employees and workers to prevent excessive overworking and to provide adequate resting time. This applies to:

  • Shift workers who are not able to take rest periods between shifts
  • People working in tourism, retail or agriculture
  • Workers in jobs that require 24-hour staffing, such as hospital employees
  • Staff working in security or surveillance work
  • People who work in two or more places with a fair distance between them

Compensatory rest is covered by the Working Time Regulations 1998, and should be equal to the amount of time that would have been in rest breaks if they were entitled to them. This rest should also be granted within a reasonable time frame.


Smoking breaks

The Health Act 2006 makes smoking in enclosed premises an offence. This includes workplaces and vehicles used for work purposes.

It is legal for employees to smoke in designated areas, such as enclosed and ventilated rooms, or suitable external spaces. Employers are free to completely ban smoking on work premises, but employees could still smoke in off-site areas.

Employees are allowed to smoke during their rest breaks, but have no additional rights to take extra smoking breaks. Companies can offer extra time to smokers, although the perceived difference between the breaks that smokers and non-smokers take can cause tension in an office environment, which can in turn lead to interrupted workflow and a decrease in productivity and morale.

As smoking is not a protected characteristic, there is no legal obligation for employers to address this. However, employers who are concerned about potential tensions between staff will find it essential to enforce a clear smoking policy that also covers vaping.


Religious breaks

Although there is no legislation in the UK that directly covers religious breaks in the workplace, religion is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This Act protects employees and workers from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation on the grounds of religion or belief.

This means that breaks required by employees to practice their religion are a right protected by UK law. The Equality Act requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to allow their staff to follow their religion.

Employers are expected to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices, including prayer breaks, or flexible working to allow for religious observance. Should an employee's religion require specific attire, this should also be allowed in any dress code policies, as long as it doesn't conflict with health and safety requirements.

When employing staff of different religions, companies should communicate with the employees to find out:

  • Is a place to pray required?
  • How often is prayer required?
  • If installing a prayer room, which location is appropriate?
  • Can an existing room be designated a prayer room?

Communication with employees is vital, as even accidental indirect discrimination could lead to grievances or constructive dismissal claims. Employers may want to produce written policies to make sure the rights of their staff are addressed clearly and fairly.


Get expert advice

Our team of professionals at Neathouse Partners can advise if you have questions about rest break entitlements in the UK. Our team of HR consultants and employment lawyers can help you navigate the process of making sure your workers get their legally mandated breaks.

Call 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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