Rest Breaks At Work

Employment law on breaks can seem confusing to some employers. Having a clear idea of the rights of your employees and their break times in the UK is vital if you own a business.


James Rowland

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


19 July 2019


11 July 2024
3 min read

This article was originally posted in July 2019, but it has been since revised - please find the latest version here.

Employment law on breaks can seem confusing to some employers.

Having a clear idea of the rights of your employees and their break times in the UK is vital if you own a business.

There are all different kinds of breaks, from work breaks to cigarette breaks - which are workers entitled to, and for how long?

Here, we’ll break it all down, so you have a much better idea of what you need to be doing as an employer.

Rest Breaks

  • Employees are entitled to 24 hours uninterrupted rest every 7 days.
  • Workers are entitled to a minimum of 11 hours rest a day.
  • When employees work for more than 6 hours, they need a break of at least 20 minutes. This should be uninterrupted, and shouldn’t occur at the start or end of the shift. It can be taken away from the workspace. Working exactly 6 hours does not apply - they must be working in excess of 6 hours.

Are There Any Exceptions To The Rules?

There are exceptions to the rules in certain cases, for example, people carrying out a specific type of work or younger workers. They are as follows:

  • Children above compulsory school age but under 18 get a 30-minute break in a working day that lasts more than 4.5 hours, rather than a 20-minute break lasting more than 6 hours. They are entitled to 12 hours uninterrupted rest each day, rather than 11.
  • People who work in the emergency services, police, or armed forces are excluded from rest break rules.
  • People who work with sea, road, or air transport are also excluded from rest break rules.
  • Those who work jobs where they choose their own hours or work is not measured can exclude themselves from the rules.

In some industries, it is compulsory for employees to take regular rest breaks, for example, drivers. The EU sets out rules for people undertaking work as drivers. This includes people who drive goods vehicles or drivers of vehicles with space for more than 9 passengers. Those who drive for a living must observe EU rules on driving hours. They must:

  • Not drive more than 9 hours in the course of a day.
  • Not drive more than 56 hours or 90 hours over the course of 1 week or 2 weeks, respectively.

In addition, drivers must get sufficient rest breaks during their shifts:

  • 11 hours rest per day – as is the case with the majority of employees.
  • A 30-minute rest break if they are working for over 6 hours but under 9.
  • A 45-minute rest break if they are working for over 9 hours.

Employers should be mindful that drivers are an example of mobile workers and where an employer makes use of mobile workers, they should be careful and ensure that workers comply with regulations.

Compensatory Rest

In certain cases where employees are not entitled to rest breaks or rest periods, they might take something called compensatory rest. This should equate to the amount of time they would have had in rest breaks or rest periods if they were entitled to them. For example, this may include the following situations:

  • Shift workers may not be able to take rest periods between ending one shift and starting another one.
  • Those working in tourism, retail, agriculture.
  • Workers in jobs that require 24-hour staffing, like hospital employees.
  • Workers that are involved in security or surveillance work.
  • Those who work in two or more places that are a fair distance apart.

Smoking Breaks

Smokers and non-smokers often experience tension, which can later result in interrupted workflow and decreased productivity.

Taking the issue seriously is vital.

Employees do not have additional rights to take extra smoking breaks, but can smoke in their rest breaks.

You might want to come up with a smoking policy if you are afraid that it will cause tension between workers. Having the same rules for vapers and smokers is also a good idea as this will reduce further divisions and tensions.

Religious Breaks

There is no legislation out there that pertains to an employee’s right to take religious breaks.

You can make it a contractual agreement if you want to, which means their religious breaks will be inserted into their employment contract. Alternatively, you could simply agree on the process.

Although there’s no legislation on religious breaks, if somebody requests the right to a religious break, you cannot treat them differently than any other person on your team.

Common sense and compassion are two huge factors that should help you to decide what to do if somebody wants to take a religious break. If it is essential that your employee doesn’t take too much time away from their desk, they may be willing to make it up in other ways.

Both employers and employees need to be sure they understand their rights and responsibilities to do what is legally correct.

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