When the Working Time Regulations (WTR) came into force in 1998 they spelt a sea change in employment rights with limits on maximum working hours, compulsory rest breaks and paid leave. Many employers already provided their staff with these rights in their contracts but equally others, typically smaller businesses with lower paid employees, had not.
One of the rights enshrined in the WTR is that if daily working time is more than 6 hours an individual has the right to an uninterrupted 20 minute rest break. Young workers are entitled to a break of 30 minutes once their working time exceeds 4½ hours.
These are modest requirements not least because the individual can be required to remain in or about their workplace during the break, so long as they do not have to remain at their workstation and do not have to perform any work. Moreover there is no obligation for employers to provide any dedicated space or other facilities for the breaks and the break time need not be paid.
It is common for employment contracts to contain much enhanced rights – commonly a lunch break of an hour together with shorter breaks mid-morning and afternoon. It is all very well having these contractual rights but are employees in reality allowed or encouraged to exercise them?
A recent study by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy showed that 20% of those surveyed worked through their lunch hour. 50% of those who did take a break ate lunch at their desk. Only 20% went outside their place of work and a mere 3% went to the gym.
These findings make depressing reading when combined with another recent piece of research which shows that 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK are either overweight or obese. In Europe only Iceland and Malta have higher rates of these weight problems. Granted this a global issue but one of which we are at the forefront.
Employees are also working large amounts of overtime – one in four employees in the UK work 7 or more hours of overtime each week. This is in marked contrast to other parts of Europe where working overtime is either banned or seen as a sign of inefficiency.
All of these factors are likely to lead to increased levels of ill health and therefore absence and decreased productivity. Whilst it would be unfair to lay all these problems at the door of employers they can certainly do more to assist. It is open to employers to be more proactive particularly in encouraging employees to take proper lunch breaks. Action points include:
• Leading from the top – if senior staff take the break it is much easier for others to follow
• Providing areas and facilities so that breaks can be taken away from workstations.
• Encouraging employees to take exercise during their breaks.
• Not as a matter of course scheduling meetings for lunch hours
• Assessing productivity in a more sophisticated way that is not based on working excessive hours.
• Counselling employees who as a matter of course do not take breaks and/or habitually come into work early and stay late – this in itself may be a sign of problems whether personal or as to performance.