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Working Time Rest Breaks – Does an employer satisfy the 20 minute rest break requirement

Working Time Rest Breaks

Does an employer satisfy the 20 minute rest break requirement for workers under the Working Time Regulations (‘WTR’) by adding up shorter breaks so that in total they exceed 20 minutes?
Under WTR, most workers are entitled to a minimum 20 minutes rest break if their daily working time exceeds 6 hours. Some “special” categories of workers, including those whose roles require a continuous presence during shifts, are excluded from the general rule but if they have to work during a rest period they are entitled to an equivalent period of compensatory rest.

In the following case, an employee, who fell into a “special” category, argued that his employer’s practice of only allowing him to take a series of short breaks (each lasting less than 20 minutes) did not meet the requirements of compensatory rest under the WTR. The employer claimed the practice was necessary to ensure the public’s health and safety.

In that case, the Claimant, was a relief signalman for Network Rail and he worked alone. Usually six trains passed the Claimant’s signal-box every hour, and he was unable to take an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes during his shift. Network Rail told him he could instead take shorter breaks between train signals. These breaks were often only five minutes but over the course of his shift could amount to well in excess of 20 minutes in total.

The Claimant brought tribunal proceedings for an alleged breach of the WTR. He argued that Network Rail’s arrangement was neither (i) a “standard” rest break, nor (ii) an equivalent period of compensatory rest.

An employment tribunal ruled in Network Rail’s favour. It decided that, although the Claimant did not receive a “standard” rest break, he did receive an equivalent period of compensatory rest once the short breaks were added together.

The Claimant’s appeal was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). It ruled that Network Rail’s system was not compliant with WTR. Specifically, the EAT rejected Network Rail’s argument that a 20 minute period of compensatory rest could be achieved by adding together shorter periods of time. The EAT said that compensatory rest must, as far as possible, amount to a single break from work that lasts at least 20 minutes.

Accordingly, as there was no opportunity on the Claimant’s shifts for a single continuous break from work of 20 minutes, Network Rail were in breach of their obligations under WTR.


Organisations using workers in roles requiring continuity of service or production should review their break policies to ensure that those excluded from the general right to rest breaks under the WTR are benefitting from compliant compensatory rest periods.