Are all rest breaks created equal?

25 April 2019

This article was featured in the May 2019 issue of the magazine.

Jade Linton, associate solicitor at Thursfields, comments on a recent court decision about duration of compensatory rest breaks

Workers in the UK are said to be skipping lunch in an effort to be more productive, when studies have long-suggested that taking a rest break is one of the best ways to increase productivity. A rest break is said to allow workers to gain focus and energy and can prevent the mid-afternoon slump (provided the employee did not consume too big a sarnie). 

For many a rest break will consist of one uninterrupted break of anything from twenty minutes to one hour. The Working Time Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/1833) (‘the Regulations’) provide that a worker is entitled to a rest break away from their workstation (if they have one) of at least twenty minutes if their daily working time exceeds six hours. 

However, a worker who falls within a number of ‘special cases’ under the Regulations is excluded from entitlement to a rest break but instead is entitled wherever possible to an equivalent period of ‘compensatory rest’. In the case Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Crawford 2019, the Court of Appeal considered whether compensatory rest had to be taken in one uninterrupted period or whether a series of short breaks could be aggregated to amount to the requisite time.

A railway signalman (Mr Crawford) provided relief cover at various signal boxes during his eight-hour shifts. The nature of his role meant he fell within the special case of worker, the effect of which meant he was unable to take a continuous rest break of twenty minutes at any time during his shift.

He was permitted to take rest breaks between periods of operational demand when there were opportunities for naturally occurring breaks. This would routinely result in an aggregate of short breaks taken over the course of his shift, often resulting in rest periods which combined were more than his twenty-minute entitlement.

Mr Crawford claimed this arrangement did not comply with the Regulations and that he was entitled either to a twenty-minute rest break or compensatory rest in one block of twenty minutes.


...Different kinds of rest may be appropriate in different cases...


A worker who falls within one or more of the special cases, including those working in rail transport whose activities are linked to transport timetables and to ensuring the continuity and regularity of traffic, are excluded from the entitlement to a rest break. However, in these cases the Regulations provide that:

  • the employer shall wherever possible allow the worker to take an equivalent period of compensatory rest, and

  • in exceptional circumstances where for objective reasons it is not possible to grant such a period of rest, the employer shall afford the worker such protection as may be appropriate in order to safeguard their health and safety.

In Gallagher v Alpha Catering Services Ltd (t/a Alpha Flight Services) 2005, the Court of Appeal held that when deciding whether the workers in any case were covered by the special cases provisions, a tribunal should focus on the activities of the worker rather than those of their employer.

The Court of Appeal found that adequate compensatory rest had been provided and such rest did not have to occur in one block of twenty minutes. In reaching the decision the ‘language’ of the Regulations was given careful consideration; the obligation under the Regulations is to provide rest which is equivalent to an uninterrupted period of twenty minutes not rest that is identical. Therefore, the rest afforded to Mr Crawford provided it had the same value in terms of contributing to his well-being as a single block of twenty minutes was lawful.

The decision of the Court of Appeal is logical particularly in cases where the requirements of the role are such that the traditional single block of twenty-minute rest cannot be granted. There is no reason why two fifteen-minute breaks, for example, should not be as good as one twenty-minute break. However, it is important when considering cases like this for focus to be on the activities of the worker; consequently, the same decision would likely not have been reached for an office worker for whom an uninterrupted break of twenty minutes is more than achievable. Different kinds of rest may be appropriate in different cases and consideration of the worker’s individual role and the impact of rest upon it should always be considered.