Rest breaks at work: Everything you need to know

Lydia Veljanovska, Content Writer · 04 Sep

Working hard can be hardly working, if you don’t take a break now and then. We’ve all had those ‘oops’ moments – whether we’ve incorrectly addressed an email or word-vomited at an important meeting.

Thankfully, the UK has strict legislation in place when it comes to rest breaks at work, preventing us from becoming disgruntled dead-eyed zombies, tripping over logic and dragging our feet. 

But what are the laws and benefits of the much-coveted rest break? As The Clash once sung, ‘know your rights, these are your rights’… and everything else you might want to know.

What is a rest break?

You may think you know what a break is, after all we’ve all spent time staring at a stagnant clock and pining for a taste of freedom. However, the law has clear guidelines on what actually constitutes a rest break at work. 

  • A rest break is an uninterrupted period of at least 20 minutes, during which no work should be undertaken. 
  • The break has to be continuous and your employer is not allowed to make the rest break up to 20 minutes by offering several short breaks. 
  • It does not count as a rest break if you must stay in contact with your employer, even if the break was uninterrupted.

When are you entitled to a break at work?

If you work more than six hours a day, you are entitled to a 20 minute daily rest break at work. This could be either a lunch or tea break. At what time you take your break is at the discretion of your employer, as long as:

  • The rest break is taken all in one go, at some point in the middle of the day – not at the beginning or end. 
  • You are allowed to leave your work station or desk – you are entitled to leave the premises entirely if you chose. 

Smoking breaks

For smokers, a frequent fix of ‘fresh air’ may seem like a basic human right. It’s the debate that divides the office, but employers are not legally obliged to let you. However, they cannot stop you from puffing away during your designated rest break, after all they are your lungs. 

Cigarette rest break

Restroom breaks

Unless stipulated in your contract, your employer does not have the right to deduct pay based on your trips to the bathroom. What sort of world would we be living in if they could?

Rest breaks at work when pregnant

There are no specific statutory regulations granting pregnant employees additional rest breaks. That being said, employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and special duties for pregnant employees do apply.

Are breaks at work paid?

Employers aren’t obliged to pay you for this time out, it's entirely dependent on their terms of employment. More often than not, in most salaried jobs, you will find that firms will cover it in your wage.

If you are given an unpaid lunch hour, you may think twice about nipping out for a sandwich and eating it at your desk. A new study has shown that on average Brits are taking only 27 minutes of their designated hour, meaning they lose out on £33,264 career earnings which is 1.6 times the average UK annual salary.

What's the rest break regulation for under 18s?

If you are under 18, but over leaving school age, slightly different rest breaks regulations apply. You are entitled to a 30-minute break, if you work longer than four and a half hours. If possible, this work break should be for a continuous period of time. 

Young workers are not entitled to a daily rest break if their work has to be completed due to an exceptional circumstance, for example an accident. This only applies if there's not a worker over 18 who can do the work, and the work is temporary and must be done immediately.

What are the exemptions to rest break law?

There are certain professions for which the general type of rest break legislations do not apply. These include:

  • The armed forces or emergency services, and their dealing with an exceptional catastrophe or disaster. 
  • Jobs where employees freely choose the hours they work (like managing directors) or jobs where the work isn't measured (i.e. no set hours).
  • Sea, air or road transport workers.

rest breaks

What is a compensatory rest break?

If you have to work through your beloved break, you don’t have to miss out. You're entitled to a compensatory rest break. You can take the break as soon as it is possible, but ideally on the same day.
The period of compensatory rest allowed should be equal to the interrupted portion of the rest, not the entire break. Young workers are also entitled to compensatory rest and it must be taken within three weeks.

Can you opt-out from rest breaks?

Although you may opt-out of the maximum 48 hour working week by written agreement, you cannot opt-out of the statutory minimum rest break entitlements . However, of course you are not actually obliged to take a break. In fact, another recent study has shown that over 50% of UK workers are choosing to work right through their rest break. 

5 benefits of taking breaks at work

Have you ever had a problem, decided to take a break from it, then been struck with an epiphany on how to fix it? If so, then you know the magic power of taking a rest. Not only are rest breaks necessary for sanity, but they also enhance efficiency.

1. Decision making

Rest breaks can prevent ‘decision fatigue’ which erodes your will power and reasoning ability, and can result in simplistic decision making and procrastination. In a famous study, Israeli judges were more inclined to grant parole to prisoners after their two daily breaks than when they’d been working for a while.

As decision fatigue set in, the chance of them granting parole dropped to near 0% because they resorted to the simpler option of saying no.

2. Productivity and creativity

Working for long stretches without a break can lead to stress and exhaustion. A rest break at work serves to refresh the mind, replenish your mental resources, and assist your creativity.

Rest break productivity

3. Motivation

Rest breaks are also intrinsic to motivation, especially with long-term goals, as they help you to stay focused on the task. 

4. Health

If you have a sedentary job, movement breaks are essential for both your physical and emotional health. Constant sitting increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity, so having the opportunity to get up and move around is crucial.

5. Memory and learning

Science has proven for some time that one of the purposes of sleep is to consolidate memories. However, there is new evidence that resting while awake also improves their formation. During a rest period the brain ingrains and reviews what it has learned.

How can employers encourage breaks?

It has recently been reported that about 20% of workers don’t take rest breaks because they’re worried their bosses will think less of them, 13% think they’ll be judged by co-workers and 38% don’t feel encouraged to do so by their companies. 

This lack of encouragement is detrimental because the study also reported that 90% of employees felt refreshed and ready to get back to work after a break, and 81% of employees that took rest breaks had the desire to be an active member of their company. It can be difficult to alter the view that ‘breaks are for slackers’ but if you are an employer or manager, here are a few tips on how to change your company’s culture. 

Have a break room

Having a designated break room lets employees know there’s somewhere to go to take time away from their desks or workstations. Make sure to have comfortable furniture, so people can sit and relax.

Staff room for rest breaks

Incentivise breaks

An incentive programme will encourage people to take rest breaks at work. If you make your employees track their breaks then reward them for taking them, everyone should get the message.

Communicate the benefits

Many people might not be aware that skipping rest breaks contributes to stress and inhibits productivity. Post information about the benefits of rest breaks at work, or have a meeting to explain how they can help. This will also boost morale as it’ll show you care for the wellbeing of your employees. 

Lead by example

The most effective way to encourage employees to take rest breaks is to take some yourself. Once they see their bosses stepping away from their duties, they’ll feel that it is acceptable for them to do the same.

In summary

Rest breaks are beneficial to both employees and employers, and the quality of hours spent working are more important than the quantity. Taking a rest breaks at work is your right, as well as in your interests. Therefore relax, meditate, eat or gossip, but once you’re done get straight back to the grind. After all, the devil does make work for idle thumbs…

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