What are the working hours and break laws in the UK?

Coffee break in front of computers

We have provided this comprehensive guide to help you understand everything you need to regarding rest breaks, weekly rest breaks, compensatory rest, how many hours must be worked before such a rest break, and anything else to do with the health and safety legislation on this subject. Of course, this is not official legal advice, but we've done our best to be accurate regarding the subject of regular breaks!

What are rest breaks?

Rest breaks are periods when employees take time away from their normal work duties. Generally speaking, after more than six hours working, an adult employee can take 20 minutes off for a break.

What is the law in the UK that governs rest breaks at work?

For some workers, a rest break is a legal right, but this depends on the situation. The law that governs this is the Working Time Regulations (1998) directive. Workers who work more than six hours in a single day are entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes.

Do employees get paid for rest breaks?

The employment contract will determine if the worker is paid during breaks at work. It is not set out in employment law.

To which employees do rest break laws apply?

Some jobs do not pose health and safety risks if workers do not take a break. In these cases, there is no legal right for a break. In other cases, the demands of the job outweigh any potential risks such as in the armed forces and emergency services.

Some examples where these laws don't apply are:

  • Self-employed people
  • Domestic workers who work in a private house
  • Sea transport personnel
  • Air or road transport personnel
  • Roles that don't specify hours such as a managing director.


What can employees do during a rest break?

The employee's contract determines what an employee can do during rest breaks. Not all contracts allow the employee to leave the premises, for example.

Rest break at work

Are employers obliged to provide rest breaks at work?

Per health and safety regulations, employers must ensure that their employees have sufficient breaks so that their health and safety is not at risk.

Can employees smoke during rest breaks at work?

There is no UK law specification for additional breaks such as smoking breaks. But employees can have their lunch break at a specified time and also have a cigarette at that time if they do smoke, provided they are in a designated smoking area. The employee's contract will specify clearly what is allowed and what is not, and if additional smoking breaks are permitted.

Are there weekly rest break periods?

UK law states that employees have a legal right to a full day of rest each week.

Coffee rest break

But this is an average and so it doesn't guarantee that there will be precisely one day off every week. Some shift patterns simply would not permit this. Specifically, UK employment law states that there must be one period of 24 hours without work every week, and a period of 48 hours every fortnight.

Are employees forced to take rest breaks if they want to keep on working?

An employer has the right to force the employee to take a break to ensure the health and safety of the employee.

What are compensatory rest breaks?

Watch on wrist near laptop

If an employee misses a break for business reasons, they are entitled to another break to make up for it. This is termed a compensatory rest break.

How long must breaks be between working days?

Adult workers have a right to 11 hours of break between working days as per the Working Time Regulations.

Do rest breaks apply to shift workers?

Generally, yes. But in some cases, a shift worker is not entitled to the full rest break, depending on the circumstances. This applies if the shift worker's shift pattern changes (such as from day to night work), and also if there is not enough time to take the full rest break (such as if the time between shifts is less than 11 hours). Split shifts are also sometimes not entitled to 20-minute rest breaks if each shift is less than six hours.

Are rest break laws different for young workers?

A young worker under 18 can have a 30-minute break every 4 1/2 hours. They can also have a daily break of 12 hours. (Adults can only have 11 hours.) They can have a weekly break to rest of 48 hours. But this break does not have to be in one block. It can be two separate blocks of 24 hours.

Must rest breaks be explained in the employee's contract?

Employment contract

Yes, the details of the breaks should all be explicitly covered in the employee's contract.

What happens if you're of school leaving age but still under 18?

The rules for young workers apply to all workers under 18, even if they are already of school-leaving age.

Must there be set hours for rest breaks?

This would usually be specified in the employment contract. For roles that don't work set hours, such as air and sea transport personnel, the Working Time Regulations generally don't apply.

Does employment law on rest breaks apply to the emergency services personnel?

The armed forces and emergency services are exempt from Working Time Regulations because the nature of their work overweighs the risks of personal health and safety.

Are rest breaks the same as a lunch break?

Lunch breaks can double up as a rest breaks and the employment contract can specify this. The entire point of the working regulations is that they promote health and safety for the employee. Ensuring this health and safety would include making sure that the employee has sufficient time to obtain sustenance for the day.

Topic: Regulations / Regulations