Rest breaks at work: legal requirements for employers

Find out what breaks workers are entitled to, where they must take them, and whether rest breaks are paid or unpaid.

Our experts

We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality.
Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Rest breaks at work are a legal requirement for every employee. Every staff member who works at least 6 hours per day is entitled to one, regardless of role, shift pattern, or industry.

Working flat out for eight hours – particularly if you’re sat slumped over a laptop during that time – is no way to inspire creativity. Taking regular breaks gives workers a chance to recharge, which means encouraging them to unplug (mentally and physically) is an easy way to boost your employees’ productivity. Not to mention, protect their health and wellbeing.

The rules on taking breaks at work are decided by The Working Time Regulations (WTR) act 1998, as well as anything you have written down in your employee contracts. Below, we’ll lay out the law on breaks at work including when they should be taken, why, and how long for.

Break entitlements in the UK

Breaks are pretty self-explanatory. They are regular breaks scheduled throughout the work day or week that allow employees to take time off from their professional duties.

Legally, workers over 18 are usually entitled to three types of break – rest breaks at work, daily rest and weekly rest. We’ll explain what these are below.

There are certain rules and numbers that bosses must adhere to when catering for employees’ breaks. But the important thing to remember is that you can offer employees longer rest breaks than the legal requirement as an added incentive. Just not less.

Depending on their sector, many employers choose to do this because of the substantial benefits that breaks have been proven to bring to staff.

Rest breaks

Workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break during their working day, if they work more than six hours a day.

What a rest break looks like will depend on the employee. Technically, they can cover everything from a break for lunch, to just time away from the keyboard.

Is a rest break paid or unpaid?

Business owners are under no legal obligation to pay their employees for the time they are on break. However, we advise doing so anyway.

20 minutes will be a relatively small overhead and staff members may choose to skip their rest break if they know they are technically losing money for taking it.

If the employer pays for rest breaks, they should write this clearly in the employee’s contract.

Rest Breaks for Young Workers

The rules on rest breaks are different for young workers (aged 16-18). This age group should be given a 30 minute rest break if they work more than 4.5 hours per day.

Daily rest

On top of rest breaks, workers also have a legal right to at least 11 hours rest between working days. For example, if an office worker finishes work at 8pm, they ideally shouldn’t be allowed to start work again until 7am the next day.

Weekly rest

For shift or part-time work, when an employee might be expected to work multiple 3-4 hour shifts per week, the ‘weekly rest’ entitlement means that:

  • Each week, employees must have at least one 24-hour period without work
  • Each fortnight, employees must have at least one 48-hour period without work

When can employees take rest breaks?

If given the choice, many of us would probably love to put our feet up at the end of a Friday shift and get the weekend started early.

But there are actually some specific rules around when an employee can take a break in order to ensure they are getting an appropriate amount of rest in between tasks.

According to WTR, staff members can only take a break if it is taken in one go somewhere in the middle of the day (not at the beginning or end).

An employer also cannot suddenly decide that an employee should go back to work before their break is finished. This would defeat the purpose of giving them time off.

What if an employee can’t take a rest break?

In exceptional circumstances, an employee may be asked to take compensatory rest if they are unable to take a break during a shift. For example, if they’re doing security and surveillance-based work and a colleague needs to take a break at the same time.

In this scenario, the break should be taken at a later time and last as long as a specific rest break would have lasted.

Are smoking breaks a legal requirement in the UK?

No, a worker does not have the right to take smoking breaks if their employer decides not to offer them. In news that will shock chefs around the country, smoking breaks can legally be banned by managers should they choose.

We do not recommend that business owners take this step, however. The ten minutes of time an employee might spend on a smoke break is far less distracting than an employee chomping at the bit for their next nicotine rush.

Rest breaks at work: why are they important?

Just like any muscle, exercising your brain or body during work will expend a lot of energy. Staff need an appropriate amount of rest to recover.

Whatever the activity, rest breaks bring plenty of physical and mental benefits for the employee. These include:

1. Added time for creativity

Taking a break might seem like slacking off. But research has proven that a break can be the best time to do work. Going for a walk, or even just a change of scenery, can give your brain the space and energy to organically find the solution to a problem.

2. Lessened injury risk

The human body isn’t designed to be static for long periods. Last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found a big rise in the number of people being unfit for work because of neck and back injuries.

Encouraging workers to stand up and move around also means you are providing a working environment that complies with health and safety regulations.

3. Increased productivity

A break a day keeps the writer’s block away. Ironically enough, employees who have had an appropriate amount of time to rest and refocus are more likely to meet goals and deadlines.

4. Reduced risk of stress and burnout

Taking short breaks throughout the working day may not have as obvious an impact as taking a holiday. Nonetheless, research has found significant benefits for improving mood, and reducing the risk of fatigue at the end of the day.

For remote or hybrid employees, a break at work can also help to improve work-life balance. Staff can do admin or household tasks during their time away from the laptop.

Rest breaks at work: benefits for employers

Every employer must follow the legal entitlements for breaks at work. Not to do so means you risk a fine for breaking the WTR.

Complementing this obligation, however, are many genuine advantages that well-rested staff members can bring for business owners.

1. Improved output

As we’ve mentioned above, promoting the uptake of regular breaks is a tactic for building a productive workforce. Fully optimising your resources in this way can directly generate additional profits.

2. Reduced risk of conflict

Frazzled employees who feel stressed out and overworked are more likely to take their frustrations out on colleagues. Ensuring workers are taking appropriate time for themselves can therefore be viewed as a conflict resolution tactic.

3. Lowered staff attrition rate

Staff turnover shot up higher than the rate of inflation last year, as more employees reported suffering from burnout. Giving workers adequate breathing space is the simplest way to lower stress and stop talent from leaving early.

4. Bolstered employee engagement

Happier and healthier employees creates a positive working environment where staff members feel motivated to work hard. Work breaks are a great way to improve employee engagement and ensure that when at their desks, staff have the energy to work hard.

What if I fail to provide rest breaks?

Employers who fail to provide their employees with rest breaks will be breaking the law and face a financial risk. They may be liable to pay personal injury damages.

Even if not found out, not offering rest breaks brings other potential risks include alienating staff and sowing discontent in the workplace, leading employees to quit and productivity to suffer.

What should employees do while on breaks?

Under WTR, employers must take measures to ensure workers can spend their rest break away from their desk or workstation. This is designed to encourage employees to disconnect from work for the full 20 minutes. But it doesn’t mean you have no control over what your staff members get up to during recess.

After all, if a colleague spends their lunch hour sitting in the same position and scrolling through TikTok, they aren’t going to reap the full benefit of a rest break.

To help staff members make the most of their time off, business owners can promote activities that have been found to boost productivity, such as:

  • Walking
  • Healthy eating
  • Doodling
  • Meditation
  • Napping

5 things to do with your rest break


Employers are legally obligated to allow for rest breaks for staff members. But doing so is not just about avoiding a fine. It’s also a savvy business decision that will build happier teams leading to improved output and lower staff attrition rate.

Under WTR, employers must cater for a statutory 20-minute break for adult employees (30 minutes for 16-18 year olds).

Smart employers will have noted the above benefits, however. Where possible, we recommend firms consider introducing longer breaks to support staff and maximise the potential return on investment.

Rest breaks at work: FAQs
  • Are employers legally required to provide rest breaks?
    Yes. If an employee works longer than six hours per day, they are legally entitled to take a 20 minute break for rest or food. The employer should take steps to ensure staff can spend the break away from their desk or workstation.
  • Can rest breaks be paid or unpaid?
    Employers do not have to pay their employees while they are on break. However, not paying staff while they are on break could disincentive employees from taking the time off, so we recommend businesses offer paid rest breaks.
  • What should I do if my employer denies me my entitled rest breaks?
    First, speak to your employer directly and make sure they understand the right to rest breaks as laid out by the Working Time Regulations. If the employer still refuses to allow breaks, the staff member should raise the issue with a HR representative. Employers who fail to provide their employees with rest breaks may be forced to pay for personal injury damages.
  • Am I entitled to a break if I work 6 hours?
    Employees aged 18+ are entitled to a 20 minute break for every six hours they work in the day - although a longer break can be permitted at the discretion of the business owner. Young workers aged 16-18 should be given a 30 minute break for every 4.5 hours they work in the day.
  • Can an employer tell me what to do on a break?
    No. An employee can choose to do anything on their rest break - including, working through it. That said, we recommend managers encourage employees to take their break away from the desk or workstation to ensure they properly switch off from the spreadsheets
Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

Leave a comment

Leave a reply

We value your comments but kindly requests all posts are on topic, constructive and respectful. Please review our commenting policy.

Back to Top