Employees are entitled by law to take certain rest breaks at work, but employers are also allowed to adopt policies to ensure that time taken for breaks is not abused or disruptive.
In this guide, we explain the law on rest and toilet breaks and look at the key considerations for employers when managing breaks at work and potentially restricting access to toilets.
Workers’ rights to rest breaks
Employees working more than 6 hours a day are entitled to have an uninterrupted break of a minimum of 20 minutes. They can opt to take this break at any time during their working hours, except for at the very start and end of that working time. The employee also has the choice to take this time differently, such as two separate, ten-minute breaks. They can also choose to take this time away from their place of work, eg away from their desk.
This rest break is generally unpaid, unless the contract of employment provides for paid breaks.
If an employee misses a rest break due to work, such as being delayed by a business meeting that overran, the employer must ensure the break is still taken. This is called ‘compensatory rest’. It is sensible to try to agree together how the compensatory rest break should be taken, remembering the break has to be the same length and type (an ‘equivalent period’) as the break they have missed.
Beyond this basic entitlement, it is for employers to decide whether they want to offer extended or additional breaks during the working day, for example, an hour lunch break or specific break rules for smokers.
Rules for these breaks, and whether or not they are paid, should be contained within employees’ contracts of employment.
In addition to rest breaks during the working day or shifts, workers are also entitled to at least 11 hours’ uninterrupted rest between finishing work and beginning the next period of work. If this is not possible, for example because there is an emergency at work, the employer has to act to ensure the employee gets sufficient rest.
An employee is also entitled to 24 hours’ rest in a 7-day period, and 48 hours’ rest in a 14-day period. Although this tends to be taken in most cases as one block of time, it can be two separate 24-hour breaks if the employer decides, or it is written into the employee’s contract.
Zero hours workers
Zero-hours contract workers have the same right to rest breaks as other workers.
Shift workers may not be entitled to full legal rest breaks for the working day or week if both of the following points apply:
- They change shift patterns, moving from day to night, for example, or
- There is insufficient time to take the full rest break, perhaps there are less than 11 hours between the end of one shift and the start of another.
The same applies to those workers whose work is split over the day on a so-called ‘split-shift’. This is where someone, for example, works from 6am to 9am and then again at the other end of the day from 7pm to 10pm.
However, employers should always endeavour to ensure their workers receive their full legal rest breaks, where they can, to support employee wellbeing and avoid burnout.
The law on toilet breaks at work
You may be surprised to learn that there is no employment law specifying the number of times or duration allowed for toilet breaks. Because there are no statutory laws protecting toilet breaks, you must ensure that employees are allowed to take their statutory rest breaks. As stated above, this is 20 minutes for all adult workers who work over six hours per day. However, there is no law that prevents you from restricting any further time away from work. Although this should always be approached with caution and within reason.
If you are experiencing problems with staff taking frequent and lengthy toilet breaks, you could consider imposing a time limit. However, what is deemed reasonable may depend on the employee and their job. For example, whether cover is needed before they can go on a toilet break.
The average person tends to use the toilet around 6 to 7 times with a 24-hour period, which equates to approximately 2 or 3 visits in an 8-hour shift. It is important to consider that each person’s bladder is different. External factors can play a large part, which can influence how often a visit to the toilet is necessary. Any action you decide to take which restricts toilet breaks at work should be used with caution, and as a last resort.
It is extremely important that any changes you are considering imposing are communicated to workers, usually within the staff handbook. You should remember that any changes to contractual terms will generally require agreement from the employee. The employee may decide to refuse to sign a new contract containing toilet break restrictions.
It is important that any changes to the rules or company policies should be company-wide and apply to everyone, not just one individual employee, to avoid complaints of unlawful discrimination.
Toilet breaks for pregnant workers
When considering toilet breaks at work, it is important to remember pregnant women may need to use the toilet more frequently. They should not be penalised because of their pregnancy, either before taking maternity leave or on their return during the protected period. Instead, think about ways you can assist pregnant employees, such as moving them closer to any facilities. Failure to make reasonable adjustments such as changing working conditions to accommodate their needs could expose you to discrimination claims.
Dealing with excessive toilet breaks
The primary consideration when imposing restrictions on toilet breaks at work are issues of health and safety. Under the Health and Safety Act (1974), employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees at work, and maintain the work setting so that it is safe, and without risk to health. This includes providing adequate facilities and arrangements for employees’ welfare while they are at work.
Restricting access to the toilet may have a negative impact on your employee’s health. It is essential if you have any workers with medical conditions or circumstances which may necessitate them needing frequent toilet breaks, that they feel free to visit it as the need arises. Going to the toilet as and when needed is an important part of an employer’s health and safety duty, while also maintaining employees’ dignity.
Toilet breaks may well be because of an employee’s existing health condition, but placing restrictions on toilet breaks may also cause additional problems, too. Digestive issues, urinary tract infections or kidney infections can all develop into serious health conditions.
Pregnancy, the menopause, using medication, or prostate problems are only a few health conditions that can cause frequent visits to the toilet. Employers are under a legal obligation to prevent unlawful discrimination due to protected characteristics such as disabilities and pregnancy, meaning employers should take reasonable steps to support employees with their health requirements.
Because of these considerations, employers are generally advised to look at alternative measures before restricting access to toilets. For example, if employees are using toilet breaks to use their mobile phones, it may be more effective to restrict the use of and access to mobile phones during work hours.
Consider meeting with problematic employees if you believe they are taking excessive toilet breaks. This gives your employees the opportunity to offer an explanation. If they are unable to give you adequate reasons, despite being given the opportunity to do so, it may discourage them from continuing with their behaviour if you tell them you are monitoring the situation.
Toilet breaks, employee wellbeing and morale
There are no restrictions preventing employers from limiting toilet breaks, but is this is a wise course of action?
If staff have been spending longer periods away from their work for toilet breaks, but there are no performance issues, and work is still being done at the required rate and to the required standard, it may not really be necessary to raise this as an issue.
You should carefully consider employees’ potential reactions to imposing toilet break restrictions. Raising toilet breaks as a management concern can damage morale. Poor work morale can have a significant effect on a business, potentially leading to higher levels of employee turnover, which should be avoided if at all possible.
The best approach is likely to centre around employers having conversations with those employees where issues around lengthy toilet breaks arise. They may have a health condition about which you are not aware. Talking to them may tease this information out and give you a better idea of how you can support them.
Dealing with such conversations sensitively is vital and is often the best route to manage issues surrounding toilet breaks. Giving employees the opportunity to share the reasons for their behaviour and employers sharing their expectations or reminding employees of the guidelines around relevant policies helps both parties better understand the other’s position.
DavidsonMorris are experienced employment law specialists and HR consultants, offering guidance and support to employers with all aspects of workforce management and employee entitlements. For advice about any aspect of employment law and reducing legal risk for your business, contact us.
Toilet break FAQs
How long is a reasonable toilet break at work?
The law is not clear how long a toilet break should be. There are currently no laws protecting toilet breaks, but employers have health and safety duties they must meet and toilet breaks are a part of this.
How long can a toilet break be?
Toilet breaks are not given any special legal rights over any other time away from a workstation, and it is entirely up to an employer if they allow you to take as many breaks as you wish or whether they impose restrictions.
Is it illegal to not have a working toilet at work?
Employers have a legal duty to provide working toilets and handwashing facilities in the workplace, including separate toilets for men and women if there are employees of all genders.
Can employer’s time bathroom breaks?
Employers can impose restrictions on toilet breaks at work because there are no laws protecting toilet breaks. Although they must ensure employees are given their statutory rest break period. This is 20-minutes per six-hour shift worked.
Last updated: 13 February 2022