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Ask Our Specialist – How Long Should Employee Meal and Rest Breaks Be?

Published January 15, 2018 (last updated June 30, 2023) - Ben Fairfax

Rest breaks benefit workplaces by helping employees work safely and productively. Employees are entitled to rest and meal breaks that give them a reasonable chance to rest, refresh and take care of personal matters and are appropriate for the length of their working day with the employer.

There are no specific rules for when or how long rest and meal breaks should be however, employers must give their employees a reasonable opportunity to negotiate and reach agreement about the frequency and length of breaks.

Common practice is that rest breaks are 10 to 15 minutes long and meal breaks are at least 30 minutes long, but these times vary across industries and occupations. Employers must pay for minimum rest breaks but don’t have to pay for minimum meal breaks. If you are unsure what the general practice in your industry is, you can check with an Employsure Adviser.

How to calculate employee break periods

Good practice for determining what breaks are provided (frequency and for how long) take into account the following factors:

  • how long the employee’s work period is
  • the nature of the employee’s work
  • any health and safety issues related to the work, eg fatigue
  • the time of day or night that the employee’s work period starts, eg matching meal breaks to normal meal times where possible
  • the interests of the employee, eg to allow enough time for rest, refreshment and to take care of personal matters
  • the employer’s operational environment or resources, eg does the employer need employees to take their breaks in stages or according to a roster, in order to continue production or services, or do all employees need to take their breaks at the same time

Ensuring adequate breaks can make a noticeable difference to an employee’s physical and mental well-being at work. People can’t keep performing at a high level without having breaks of some sort. These should be matched to the nature and intensity of the work. For example, a construction worker may need short frequent breaks to relieve the pressure of operating loud machinery or heat conditions.

In situations where fatigue can lead to harm (such as in driving or the operation of dangerous machinery) employers have obligations to take all practicable steps to ensure that fatigue is not likely to cause harm. Always take into account factors that lead to fatigue or impact on an employee’s ability to perform work effectively.

For advice on meal and rest breaks, call Employsure on 0800 568 012.

About Employsure

Employsure is one of New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisers to small and medium businesses, with over 5,000 clients. We take the complexity out of workplace legislation to help small business employers protect their business and their people.

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