No rest for the weary
Rachel Hetherington explores whether employers may be liable for personal injury if they fail to provide for rest breaks at work.
Under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR) employers are required to give employees at least a 20-minute break at work if they work longer than 6 hours. The break does not have to be paid, an employer can stipulate when it is taken and may choose to offer a longer or paid break if they wish. The terms should be set out in the employment contract.
A recent case considered whether an employee is entitled to claim compensation for personal injury from an employer who has failed to provide rest breaks. Initially the employee was required to work 8 ½ hours and allowed to take a 30 minute, unpaid, lunch break (in line with WTR). The employee then changed to a role where the employer required him to work 8 hours a day with the expectation that he worked straight through and left work earlier to account for the lack of break. The employee had an existing bowel condition and he claimed that the lack of rest breaks caused him discomfort and distress. The employee brought a claim against his employer for breach of his entitlement to take rest breaks.
Although the employee had not suffered any financial loss, the Tribunal awarded the employee £750 compensation for discomfort and distress caused by the lack of breaks. The EAT confirmed that the WTR were there to protect health and safety and therefore it was natural for personal injury awards to be made by way of compensation for breach of the WTR. The EAT made the assessment on a common-sense basis and held that, given the low value nature of the compensation, medical reports were not necessary to support a claim for personal injury. The case also clarified that an employee was entitled to compensation for a failure to provide rest breaks regardless of whether the employee had requested a break.
Employers have a duty to offer rest breaks and to organise the work day to allow for such breaks. Employers should make it clear to employees they are entitled to take breaks and should actively encourage employees to take their entitled rest break. Whilst there is no restriction as to when the break must be taken it should ideally be taken near the middle of the working period. Employers should raise concerns with employees who appear to be working long hours without a break.