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All work and no play…. leaves employers liable! All work and no play…. leaves employers liable!

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Nov 16

All work and no play…. leaves employers liable!

Written by All work and no play…. leaves employers liable!

“Have a break! Have a k****t”! You can fill in the rest. But, as a recent case goes to show, it’s not only the manufacturer of our favourite two-fingered chocolate biscuit that is encouraging workers to ‘give it a rest’.

The law on working time is a health and safety measure aimed at protecting workers from fatigue, stress and burnout. Healthy workers are happy workers, and happy workers are more likely to be productive. Increasing productivity is good for business, so the concept of encouraging time out makes sound business sense. But as we all know, sometimes work gets in the way. The key for employers is understanding workers’ rights and being proactive about their responsibilities.

Workers in the UK have rights to minimum paid holiday; maximum weekly working hours and minimum rest breaks. Refusing to permit workers to exercise those rights may give rise to claims in the Employment Tribunal. In this latest case the key question was whether the employer had “refused” its workers their entitlement to take a twenty-minute break during their working day. Their work schedule was so jam-packed they had no chance to fit in a break and instead finished half an hour early. The workers didn’t ask for a break, they just got on with their busy day. The employer didn’t tell them they couldn’t take a break, but was instrumental in scheduling their day without factoring in any opportunity for a rest. This is not unfamiliar territory across many industry types seeking ‘more for less’ in the name of efficiency.

So, had this employer “refused” its workers their right to take a break? Does a worker have to ask for a break before it can be said to have had it refused? Put another way; can there be a refusal where an employer has working arrangements that result in there being no opportunity to take a break? The answer is now clearer: There is no need for a worker to ask for a break. A refusal of the right to take a break can arise where a working environment leaves workers too busy to take their breaks.

If workers opt to forgo the opportunity to take a break they will be deemed to have waived their right to do so, but they must have had that opportunity in the first place. The law on working time encourages employers to help workers to help themselves. It remains a workers prerogative to take their breaks or to waive two chocolate fingers!

Some tips for a common sense approach:

  • Create a culture where rest periods are observed;
  • Clearly schedule breaks and spread the word;
  • Ensure workers are not under pressure to forgo breaks through employer expectation, peer pressure or performance targets;
  • Remember there is no need to keep records of breaks, but they are useful evidence if a dispute arises.
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