We often take it for granted or assume that we have the right to a lunch break or a couple of days off each week. But what is the law on breaks and working hours and what can you do if your boss is not following the rules? In this article, we answer questions on the Working Time Regulations – the law which sets out limits on how long we can be expected to work.
Rest Breaks (adults)
A friend has asked me to work for him in his new record shop. I will be the only one there. He wants the shop to be open all day (between 9am and 5pm). Shouldn’t I get a break?
Yes, you should!
But it might not be as long as you think.
Unless your employer has agreed that you should have a longer break, you are entitled to a 20-minute unpaid break if you work for over 6 hours.
I thought I was entitled to an hour’s lunch break but I only get half an hour. Is this allowed?
This will depend on why you thought you were entitled to an hour’s lunch break.
If you have a contract of employment (the agreement between you and your employer as to how your employment will work) that says you are entitled to an hour’s break, then you should be given this. This agreement does not have to be in writing but if your employer has not put it in writing, it will be hard to prove (for both of you) what has been agreed.
If you don’t have a contract of employment or you do but it doesn’t say what breaks you are allowed, you will only be entitled to a 20-minute break if you work more than 6 hours.
I have to take my break after 2pm as lunch time is our busiest time at work. I’m so hungry by then. Don’t I have a right to a break over lunch if I am working all day?
No. You would only have a right to take a break at a certain time if your contract of employment stated this.
The law only says you have a right to a 20-minute break if you work more than 6 hours. It does not say when the break must be given. As such, your employer is allowed to ask you to take your break at this time.
That said, your employer is under a duty to protect your health and safety and if not being able to eat anything before 2pm is causing you problems with your health, such as making a medical condition worse or putting you at risk, then your employer should ensure you can eat. This might be the case if you are breastfeeding.
In addition, if you need to eat as a result of a disability (such as diabetes), your employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments. In this situation, reasonable adjustments might include letting you have your break before the busy period or allowing you to split your break so that you can spend a few minutes having a snack during the busy period.
I work between 10am and 4pm 3 days a week. I don’t get a break. Can I ask for one?
As you only work for 6 hours and not more than 6 hours, you are not entitled to a break under the Working Time Regulations.
That does not mean you cannot ask for one though if the lack of a break is causing you problems. It might be possible to agree with your manager that you start at 9.30am or finish at 4.30pm so that you can have a 30 minute break during the day, or your manager might be happy to agree to you having a 10 minute break half way through the day.
As above, if you have a medical condition or a disability and the lack of a break is causing health problems, your employer is under a duty to do something about that if it’s reasonable to do so.
I work 9am to 3.30pm and get a 20-minute break which I can take when I like. Can I take it at the end of the day and leave at 3.10pm so I am home earlier?
Your employer may not allow you to do this as a break shouldn’t be taken at the start or end of the day as that isn’t giving you a “break” from work (the right to a break being brought in to protect the health and safety of workers).
My manager says I have to take my break at my desk in case the phone rings. I want to go out. Can I?
The right to a 20-minute break is a right to have a 20-minute uninterrupted break away from your workstation.
As such, you should be allowed to leave your desk or where you work. You should speak to your manager about this and raise a grievance (a formal complaint) if nothing changes.
I work as a nurse and can’t always take my break if there is a patient needing urgent help. Can I take it later on in my shift?
Where the work you do needs continuity of service or production i.e. the activities need to be done without interruption, such as the treatment and care given in hospitals, if you cannot take your break, you should be allowed to take it at another time when you would otherwise be working.
Other examples where continuity of service or production might be needed are:
- Work at docks or airports;
- Press, radio, television and cinema production;
- Gas, water and electricity production; and
I’m a security guard. I need to monitor CCTV footage all the time. Should I get a break?
There is an exception in the Working Time Regulations for workers engaged in security activities where you need to be there all the time. But you should still be given a break at another time where that is possible. If not, your employer needs to take other steps to make sure your health and safety is protected.
Daily rest (adults)
Is there a limit to how much I can work each day?
Yes. You should get at least 11 hours rest each day. This means your working day should not be more than 13 hours long.
If you are a night worker you should only work, on average, for 8 hours a day. A night worker is someone who works at least 3 hours during night-time. Night-time is between the hours of 11pm and 6am unless there is a written agreement with your employer for a different period of time to be classed as night-time. But this period must include the hours from midnight to 5am and be at least 7 hours long.
My boss wants me to work overtime to catch up on orders. I currently work 12-hour shifts. He wants me to work another 2 hours each day for a week. Can I refuse?
The same exceptions that apply for rest breaks, apply for daily rest (see “I work as a nurse and can’t always take my break if there is a patient needing urgent help. Can I take it later on in my shift?” above).
But this does not seem to fall within the exceptions as it is your boss wanting you to do extra work rather than you needing to work through what should be rest periods.
So, unless there is an agreement with a trade union (a collective agreement) that changes the legal rule and allows you to work more than 13 hours a day, you could refuse. Even if there is a collective agreement, you should still be given “compensatory rest” i.e. be able to take the rest break at another time.
I am changing from the 3pm to 11pm shift to the 7am to 3pm shift the next day. I won’t get an 11-hour break. Is this allowed?
Yes, this is allowed under the Working Time Regulations so long as you get your rest at another time if this is possible.
Weekly rest (adults)
I am starting a new job and they want me to work 6 days a week. Aren’t I entitled to 2 days off?
It’s common for full-time workers to have 2 days off each week but the law states that you only have the right to one day off (24 hours) in a 7-day period (or two days off (48 hours) in a 14-day period).
I have to work nearly 2 weeks before I get a day off. Is this allowed?
You should check your contract of employment to see what it says about your working days. If it says you should get more time off than this, then you should point this out to your employer.
If you don’ have a contract that says you should have more time off, then you should have at least one day off (24 hours) in a 7-day period or 2 days off (48 hours) in any 14-day period.
Working week (adults)
I need some extra money and overtime is on offer. How many hours can I work?
The Working Time Regulations say a worker should not work more than 48 hours a week. This is averaged out over a 17-week period (or however long you have been employed if you haven’t been employed for 17 weeks). An agreement with a trade union can increase the period over which your working hours have to be averaged to up to 52 weeks.
That said, you can “opt out” of this maximum working week in writing. This would allow you to work as many hours as you wish.
But you will always have the right to opt back in. To opt back into the maximum working week you would need to give notice that you want the “opt out” to end. If the opt-out does not say how much notice you have to give to end it, you will have to give 7 days’ notice. But an opt-out is allowed to state that you have to give up to 3 months’ notice.
So, if you want to work more than 48 hours and have signed an opt out, you can do so. If not, your employer is likely to want you to sign one.
I signed an opt out so that I could work more than 48 hours a week. I’m finding it too much now. What can I do?
You can opt back into the maximum working week by giving your employer notice.
As above, if the opt out does not say how much notice you should give, you will have to give 7 days’ notice.
If the opt out says how much notice you need to give, you will have to give that notice (unless your employer agrees otherwise). But your employer cannot require you to give more than 3 months’ notice.
You also need to remember that the 48-hour week is an average working week so in some weeks during the 17-week period you might have to work more than this but in others less.
If you want to change your hours see Can I change my working hours?
My child is 16. Are their rights any different?
Yes, there are different rules for young workers i.e. young people between the ages of 15 and 18.
A young worker should not work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week.
They should also have at least 12 hours rest a day and a rest break of at least 30 minutes.
How much holiday should I get?
For information on all your rights to holiday see our legal guide on Holidays.
If you are not given the right amount of rest, you should talk to your employer, explaining what your rights are. If the matter is not sorted out, you should raise a grievance (a formal complaint).
If the situation does not improve, you can bring a claim in the employment tribunal for a declaration (the tribunal making a statement as to what your legal rights are) and compensation. You should bring your claim within 3 months subject to ACAS Early Conciliation.
With an honest and ethical approach to law, at Truth Legal you will have access to our specialist team of lawyers to help you with all your employment law matters. Our Head of Employment Law is Navya Shekhar, an employment law solicitor with over 10 years’ experience.
If you believe that you are not being given the right amount of rest or being asked to work for too long – call us on 01423 788538 or contact us here.