Adult workers in the UK are covered by the Working Time Regulations. These regulations entitle workers to an uninterrupted rest break of at least 20 minutes from work during a working day exceeding six hours. Young workers aged between 16 and 17 are entitled to an uninterrupted break of at least 30 minutes after working 4.5 hours. This basic statutory right is to an unpaid 20-minute break.
The rest break cannot be tacked onto either the start or the end of a shift and must be taken during the working day. Sometimes employers may suggest foregoing a rest break during a busy shift and let you leave 20 minutes early, however, this is against the Working Time Regulations. Although, in practice, it is a regular occurrence in many workplaces. You are legally entitled to your rest break and should not be discouraged from taking it, or moving it around.
Sadly, the protection given by the Working Time Regulations is limited, and those working a 12-hour shift will still only be entitled to one 20-minute break under this legislation. That said, some contracts give more generous terms than the bare minimum 20-minute break, some may even give a contractual right to a paid break. Workers in some industries, such as seafarers, air cabin crew, drivers, and rail workers are covered by different rules.
Unless stated in your contract of employment, it is up to your employer whether they offer longer or extra breaks, these could be a lunch hour or cigarette breaks for smokers, for example. If in doubt, or the rules are unclear, you should check your employment contract, it should also state whether these breaks are paid or unpaid.
Breaks during the working week or longer
You are entitled to one of these:
- In a 7-day period, 24 hours of rest
- In a 14-day period, 48 hours of rest – although often taken as one block of time, your employer can decide it can be taken as two separate 24-hour breaks.
If you work shifts, you may not be entitled to the full legal rest breaks for the working day or working week, if both of the following apply:
- Your shift pattern changes, for example, you move from a night to a day shift
- There is not enough time to take the full rest break, for example, there are less than eleven hours between one day’s shift and the beginning of the next
The same applies to those who work “split shifts”. For example, a cleaner who works from 6 am to 9 am, and again from 3 pm to 7 pm.
It is important to note that employers should still do their best to ensure shift workers receive their full legal rest breaks.
If you are working on a zero-hours contract, you have the same rights to rest breaks as other employees if you have worked for more than six hours.
What to do if you are not getting the correct rest breaks
If you believe you are not getting the rest breaks you are entitled to, it is best to first raise the issue with your employer. You may feel anxious about doing so, but employers are often open to resolving problems quickly without having to go down a more formal route. For very serious issues, an informal chat may not be the best approach and you may then need to raise a formal grievance with your employer.
NOTE: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your specific situation. Make sure you get individual advice on your case from an independent source before taking any action.