Rather than describe exactly how many days you can work in a row, the government has set the maximum weekly working hours. You are not allowed to work more than an average of 48 hours per week over a 17-week period nor are you allowed to work two back-to-back 12-hour shifts. The long period of 17 weeks means that for any one week, you could be asked to work more. You can even choose to opt out of the 48-hour week too.
People work better when they are well-rested. We all know we are more productive and professional when we have had a good night’s sleep or a relaxing holiday. But what does that mean for breaks during business hours or between shifts?
Surprisingly few employees and employers fully understand the laws around breaks and working time. This can result in overworked employees and even lawsuits if disgruntled employees feel they have been taken advantage of. It is important that you know your rights and responsibilities as an employer or an employee so that you can protect yourself and your company.
There are two laws to be aware of when looking at working time limits and how many days can you work in a row. The first states that you can’t accept back-to-back 12-hour shifts as you legally need to have 11 hours of rest a day. The second says that you can’t work for more than 48 hours per week, meaning you couldn’t do more than four 12-hour shifts in a row. If you are under 18 years of age, you cannot work more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours a week.
Why do employees need breaks?
Employment laws on breaks have been structured based on research and evidence to protect employees from injury and illness. This includes mental health problems like stress, anxiety, and burnout.
In jobs requiring manual labour, physical work, or precision work such as surgery, taking regular breaks is vital to muscle health and ensures muscles don’t take strain and become too weak or fatigued to function as they should. The same goes for employees who need to focus on a single point or a screen for any extended period of time. A break allows their eyes to rest and reset and also loosens tense muscles around the shoulders and neck.
No matter your job role, your body and mind will benefit from a break.
And while short breaks are a necessity during the day, longer breaks during the week play the same role on a bigger scale, in the same way a holiday breaks up the year and helps you to relax and reset your mind.
Taking breaks has been proven to:
- Increase productivity
- Improve mental health
- Improve creative and lateral thinking
- Encourage healthy work habits
- Increase job satisfaction
When surveyed, 81% of employees reported being more engaged with their work after taking a lunch break, and more likely to want to be an active member in their company.
What breaks from work am I legally entitled to?
Despite the evidence, many workplaces still only give the bare minimum in breaks. To break it down clearly, the law states that that employees have a right to:
- Daily rest breaks of at least 20 minutes for every six hours worked. This break cannot be taken at the beginning or the end of the shift and must be uninterrupted.
- A minimum of 11 hours rest a day
- 24 hours of uninterrupted rest in a seven-day period. Alternately, employees can choose to opt out of this and instead receive 48 hours of uninterrupted rest in a 14-day period.
- 5.6 weeks of annual leave
Is working 7 days straight illegal?
The short answer is no.
Although the law states that employees have the right to 24 hours of uninterrupted rest in a seven-day period, the terms need to be looked at closely.
If a workplace states that their period of work runs from Monday to Sunday, then they can offer the 24 hours of rest, or day off, on the Monday of the first week, and again on the Sunday of the following week. Although the reality would be a 12 day work-week, the shifts would still be functioning within legal requirements.
There is also an opt-out clause written into this law allowing employees to choose two consecutive days off in a two-week period. This could technically result in an employee working 24 consecutive days with only two days off at the beginning and two days off at the end.
Can I work 5 hours without a break?
The law states that workers are only entitled to a 20-minute break if they are working over six hours. That means that even if your shift is six hours, you are not entitled to a break.
How many 12 hour shifts can you work in a row?
There are two laws to keep in mind when considering 12-hour shifts.
Firstly, you cannot take back-to-back 12 hour shifts as legally you must have 11 hours rest per day. Although this could mean you take a back-to-back shift with your 11 hour breaks on either side of the shifts, this is frowned upon and not recommended because of the toll it will take on you as well as the risk it puts on the business and any clients you may be working with.
The government website also states that:
“An employer should give an employee enough breaks to make sure their health and safety isn’t at risk if that work is ‘monotonous’ (eg work on a production line).”
Secondly, the law stating that you may not work more than 48 hours a week, which would suggest no more than four 12-hour shifts in a row. However, this number is worked out as an average over 17 weeks, so there is a possibility of more shifts as long as you have enough hours compensated to you.
You may have to work more than 48 hours:
- In emergency services, police or armed forces
- In security services
- Where 24-hour staffing is a requirement of the role
- Working on sea vessels or other waterway roles
- Where you control your own working time
- A domestic servant in a private house
You can also agree to “opt-out” of this rule by agreement with your employer, allowing you to work more than 48 hours average in the space of a week.
What are the exceptions to employment laws on breaks?
Certain industries and jobs are exempt from break and rest regulations because of the nature of the work. Some jobs will also require you to sign a contract with different break and rest rules. Make sure you have read and understood your contract before signing it and ask questions if you feel like there is something wrong.
If you are an employer, make sure that your contracts are in line with government guidelines and that your HR team keeps up to date on any changes. They should also be aware that these rules are different for workers under 18, so if you routinely hire apprentices or young people, make sure you check the guidance for young workers.
General exceptions to worker break rules are:
- Freelancers who set their own hours
- Staff in emergency services
- Jobs with “continuity of service” such as agriculture, home care, or staff on cruises or flights
- Seasonal jobs such as tourism and agriculture
- Drivers and transporters (river, lake, and sea carriage)
Remember that this guidance is in place for your safety as well as the safety of those you work with. It is in your best interests to ensure you and your staff are well rested and have healthy break time habits.