The law on breaks at work is governed by the Working Time Regulations 1998 and by an employee’s contract of employment.

Rest breaks at work

Minimum legal requirements for resting

An employee is entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes when their daily working time is more than six hours. This should not be taken at either the beginning or at the end of the working time.

Whether or not this break is paid time will depend on the individual contract of employment in each case.

The break should be uninterrupted and can be taken away from the employee’s workstation. However, if an employee works for exactly six hours (or less), they are not entitled to a break.

Employee drinking coffee while taking one of her breaks at work

Daily rest

An employee is also entitled to a rest period of 11 consecutive hours of rest in each 24-hour period. For shift workers, it may not always be possible for them to take the full 11 hours between shifts, in which case different provisions apply.

Weekly rest

An adult worker (someone over 18) is also entitled to one uninterrupted 24-hour day off in a week, or an uninterrupted 48 hours off every fortnight.

Breaks at work: check your circumstances

Although these are the minimum legal requirements, an employer can offer more if they wish. It is always helpful to ensure the position is clearly dealt with in an employee’s contract of employment.

Method of taking breaks at work

Breaks do not have to be taken at an employee’s desk and must not be at the beginning or end of the working day. Other than that, employers can stipulate how the break should be taken.

Employees are not entitled to smoking breaks or to take religious breaks. However, employers should keep in mind that religion is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

If an employer refuses a religious break, the employer must ensure this does not amount to “less favourable treatment” under the Equality Act.

Someone smoking while taking one of their daily breaks at work

Exceptions and special circumstances for breaks at work

Young workers

Those employees who are above school leaving age but under 18 are entitled to:

  • a 30-minute break if they work more than four-and-a-half hours at a time
  • 12 uninterrupted hours in each 24-hour period in which they work
  • two days off each week.

There are some limited exceptions to this – e.g. if there’s an exceptional event or crisis and there is no one over 18 available to do the work. The key is that this should be exceptional and not the working norm.

Health and safety

If employees are engaged in monotonous work (e.g. a factory line position) employers should allow enough breaks to ensure the employees’ health and safety.


When an employee tells their employer they are pregnant, the employer should carry out a risk assessment and then make any reasonable adjustments to eliminate risk to the health and safety of their employee.

Lorry drivers and coach drivers

There are very specific rules for lorry drivers and coach drivers. The rules that apply depend on the vehicle and the country in which they are driving.

There are serious penalties for breaking the rules. Drivers in any doubt should check with their employer or trade union representative.

Lorry driver in cab while driving

Breaks at work for specific professions

The standard rules do not apply to personnel in:

  • The armed forces, emergency services, or police dealing with a crisis situation
  • a job where the employee chooses their hours
  • mobile workers (employees who work in air, sea, or road transport).

Mobile employees still have the right to regular rests. Generally, they are entitled to take 30 minutes in blocks of 15 minutes, if their working day is between six to nine hours, and 45 minutes if it is longer. However, there may be specific regulations governing their sector.

Compensatory rest

If an employee is not entitled to rest breaks, they may be entitled to what is known as compensatory rest instead. This is rest of the same length as that that they have missed. There are several situations where this may apply:

  • Shift workers who cannot take daily or weekly rest breaks between ending one shift and starting another
  • Where a workplace is a long way from an employee’s home
  • Where an employee works in different places which are a reasonable distance from each other
  • When an employee is doing security and surveillance-based work
  • In certain industries which have peak periods, such as postal services or tourism
  • In the event of exceptional circumstances, such as a disaster
  • When a workplace needs round-the-clock staffing so there are no interruptions to any services or production
  • In the rail industry (on board trains or ensuring trains run on time)
  • When a working day is split, i.e. with a morning section and then an evening section
  • When there is an agreement between management, trade unions or the workforce

Understanding the legal implications of working time and breaks

As an employee, it is important that your employer provides adequate breaks during working hours for your health and safety. For an employer, the need to provide breaks must be balanced with a need to maintain productivity and ensure working time is not misused.

At Springhouse Solicitors, our team of employment law solicitors can provide their expertise and knowledge to help clarify employees’ working time entitlements, and assist employers in establishing any contractual exceptions that may be required.

For an initial discussion with our team, get in touch today.

Published in…

Updates: For employers: Holiday and working time | For employees: Working time and holidays |
Tagged with: Working time |

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