Rest breaks

Most workers have the right to take breaks, but whether you are paid for them depends on the terms of your employment contract. There are special rules about rest breaks for some types of worker, especially those working in the transport industry.

Types of breaks

You will normally have a variety of different breaks from work. These can be broken down into three types:

  • 'rest breaks' - lunch breaks, tea breaks and other short breaks during the day
  • 'daily rest' - the break between finishing one days work and starting the next (for most people this is overnight between week days)
  • 'weekly rest' - whole days when you don't come into work (for many people this will be the weekend)

The second and third types of break are almost never paid (unless you have to stay 'on call'). The first type is often paid but doesn't have to be unless your contract says so.

How much breaktime you get

The amount of breaktime you get is usually agreed with your employer. It may be written down somewhere or might just be part of your employer's standard practice. The law sets requirements on rest breaks in two ways:

  • minimum rest breaks as set in the Working Time Regulations
  • under health and safety legislation

Some people are not covered by the Working Time Regulations, like those working in the transport industry.

Your employer must give you at least the rest breaks required by the Working Time Regulations but must also make sure that your health and safety is not put at risk. This means that your employer might have to give you more than the amount set out in the regulations, if this reduces a health and safety risk.

If you use a computer

If you use display screen equipment, like computers for example, your employer should plan your work so that you can take regular breaks from looking at the screen.

Working time regulations

Minimum breaks are set out in the Working Time Regulations. These regulations apply to most workers but there are some exceptions, which are explained below.

The regulations also give you rights to paid holiday, limits on your working week and limits on night work.

Rest breaks - a break during your working day

If you're an adult worker (over 18), you'll normally have the right to a 20 minute rest break if you're expected to work for more than six hours at a stretch.

A lunch or coffee break can count as your rest break.

Additional breaks might be given by your contract of employment.

There's no statutory right to 'smoking breaks'. If you're under 18, but over school leaving age (you're under school leaving age until the end of summer term of the school year in which you turn 16), you're classed as a 'young worker'.

A young worker is entitled to a 30 minute rest break if they are expected to work for more than four and a half hours at a stretch. The requirements are:

  • the break must be in one block
  • it can't be taken off one end of the working day, it must be somewhere in the middle
  • you're allowed to spend it away from the place on your employer's premises where you work
  • your employer can say when the break must be taken, as long as it meets these conditions

Daily rest - a break between working days

If you're an adult worker you usually have the right to a break of at least 11 hours between working days.

A young worker has a right to a break of at least 12 hours between working days.

Weekly rest - the 'weekend'

If you're an adult worker you usually have the right to 24 hours clear of work each week or 48 hours clear each fortnight.

If you're a young worker, you must have at least 48 hours clear of work every week.

If the nature of the job makes it unavoidable, for example you work split shifts, then the 48 hours could be reduced to 36 hours so long as time off is given in compensation later on.

Exceptions to the regulations

The rights to breaks apply differently to you if:

  • you have to travel a long distance from your home to get to work, or you constantly work in different places making it difficult to work to a set pattern
  • you're doing security or surveillance-based work
  • you're working in an industry with busy peak periods, like agriculture, retail or tourism
  • there's an emergency or risk of an accident
  • the job needs round-the-clock staffing, like hospital work for example
  • you're employed in the rail industry and you work on board trains, or your activities are irregular or linked to seeing that trains run on time

Instead of getting normal breaks, you're entitled to 'compensatory rest'. This is rest taken later, ideally during the same day or following working day.

The principle is that everyone gets on average 90 hours rest a week, although some rest may come slightly later than normal.

There are separate special rules for mobile workers in air, sea and road transport.

The armed forces, emergency services and police are excluded in some circumstances.

Taking breaks

It is recommended that you take your rest breaks, as they are there to protect your health and safety and it is your entitlement. Your employer can make you take a break if your contract allows them to.

What to do if you can't take breaks

If your job is organised so that you can't take breaks, or if your employer doesn't allow you to take them, you should first raise the matter with your manager.

If you have an employee representative like a trade union official or health and safety representative, they can take up the matter for you.

Ultimately you can make a claim to an Industrial Tribunal, or to the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland.

Where you can get help

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

Advice NI offers free and impartial advice. 

You can get more information on Health and Safety issues by phoning the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) helpline.

If you're a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

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