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Working lunch: What does the law say about lunch breaks?

The long leisurely lunch breaks enjoyed by our office forebears seem to be fast disappearing from workplace culture. Research has found that less than a third of UK workers take an hour off for lunch and a half said that heavy workloads meant they worked through lunch. But what kind of a lunch break is provided for by law?

The Working Time Regulations (WTR) don't specifically say anything about lunch breaks, but do allow for one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during the working day, provided the working period is longer than 6 hours. Workers above school leaving age and under 18 have a more generous entitlement of one 30-minute rest break if working for longer than 4.5 hours.

Contracts of employment may well allow for additional breaks, such as an hour for lunch and a tea break in the afternoon. Variations to the WTR - such as splitting the 20 minutes into two 10-minute breaks can be made as long as there has been a collective agreement with the workforce or its representatives; it can't be modified under an individual agreement with a particular worker.

Workers are entitled to take their 20-minute break away from their workstations, and should do so at some point during the day rather than adding the break to the end or beginning of work. The employer can decide when they are taken, and they don't have to pay workers for their rest breaks.

There are exceptions to the 20-minute break rule for some professions such as air, road and sea transport workers (who are entitled to a different type of regular rest period called 'adequate rest'), and the armed forces and emergency services when dealing with an exceptional catastrophe or disaster. In some circumstances, workers who are unable to take their break may be able to take it at another time (called 'compensatory rest').

It's important that workers take breaks. Studies have shown that heavy workloads and stress can make workers less productive, increase the risk of mistakes, and affect health. Acas gives advice and guidance on the Working hours and offers practical training on issues surrounding Health, work and wellbeing and Stress.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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