You’re not a machine.
You need breaks, time to recharge. You need to step away from the tasks you’ve been doing at times if you are to be productive. If you don’t, exhaustion can set in.
We all know this, and the law recognises this need too. That’s why all employees get annual holidays. It’s also why you’re entitled to have rest and meal breaks throughout your work day.
But how do rest and meal breaks work? Can you have as many as you like, for as long as you like?
Unfortunately, no. There are limits to when and how often you have your breaks. Otherwise nothing would get done!
What may surprise you though, is that the law does not dictate the exact length and timing of breaks.
So who decides?
TYPES OF BREAKS
Before considering how often you should get breaks, be aware that not all breaks are the same.
Though not defined, the Employment Relations Act 2000 refers to two types of breaks:
- Rest breaks are a brief chance to step back from what you’re doing. You continue to get paid while on a rest break. The typical length of a rest break is 10 or 15 mins, but the length is not stipulated in the Act.
- Meal breaks are longer. They give you a chance to eat something so you can power through the rest of your day, or to run a personal errand. But you don’t normally get paid while on a meal break.
HOW MANY BREAKS DO I GET?
The law used to be prescriptive about what breaks you could take and when. There was no room for negotiation.
So, for example, over an eight-hour work period, you were to have two 10-minute rest breaks and one 30-minute unpaid meal break.
That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
The law now says you must get a reasonable opportunity to rest, refresh yourself, and attend to personal matters. But it does not specify what a reasonable opportunity is, or how that translates into breaks.
The law does say to measure a reasonable opportunity by reference to the length of your period of work. So you should expect to get more breaks if you work an eight-hour shift, as opposed to a four-hour shift.
But the exact number, and timing, of breaks will vary between employees.
HAVE YOU AGREED WHAT IS REASONABLE?
You can try and agree with your employer about what will be a reasonable opportunity for breaks. In fact, your employer must give you an opportunity to negotiate your breaks with them. What you agree might end up in your written employment agreement.
Whatever you agree to must still be reasonable according to your circumstances. So your employer can’t push you into agreeing to something unreasonable.
Some employers stick with the pattern set down in the previous legislation. That framework suited many businesses and is still often left in employment agreements.
But other employers will want more flexibility than that prescriptive approach. They will not want to reach an agreement with you. That might mean your breaks are not at the same times every day or every shift. However, they must still give you a reasonable opportunity to rest.
As it happens, you can agree with your employer that you will not get any breaks. If you do that, your employer must pay you reasonable compensation.
WHO DECIDES WHEN YOU TAKE A REST BREAK?
If you have agreed on your frequency and timing of breaks, then you can hold your employer to that agreement.
If you haven’t reached an agreement about breaks, your employer can choose when you take them. But they must act reasonably when deciding. And again, you must still have a reasonable opportunity to rest.
What factors can an employer rely on to decide on the timing of your breaks?
Maintaining production or service to your employer’s customers is a primary factor. Your employer can defer your breaks to times that permit that to happen. That may mean juggling breaks among staff so not everyone takes their breaks at once.
But they can’t defer your breaks because they don’t like you, or for some other unfair reason.
WHAT IF I DON’T GET A REST BREAK?
In some cases, it may be too hard for you to get a fair break from work. The business may be too busy, and your employer too under-resourced, to allow for that.
If you don’t get a break, your employer must compensate you.
The law does not specify what that compensation must be. It could be time in lieu, or an extra payment, or allowing you to leave work earlier. But you must get something in return for not getting a break.
REASONABLE RESTRICTIONS ON YOUR BREAKS
Even if your employer lets you go on a break, they can put some conditions on how or where you take your break.
If necessary, they can require that:
- You continue to be aware of your work duties or perform some of your duties while on a break. For example, if the phone rings, they may want you to still answer it;
- You interrupt your break if circumstances demand. For example, if a junior employee needs urgent assistance with machinery; or
- You take your break within the workplace, in case they need to call on you or interrupt your break.
The law no longer specifies exactly what breaks you get or when you can take them.
Unless you agree with your employer otherwise, they can determine your breaks. But they must do so fairly, and ensure that you get sufficient breaks according to the period you work for.
If you miss out on a break or agree not to take breaks, your employer must compensate you for that.
Do you think you get fair breaks according to each period of your work?