By Vaughan Granier

Rest and meal breaks are essential for better productivity and culture-building in the workplace. A worker’s ability to stay refreshed contributes to better decision making, problem solving and efficiency, as well as reducing risk and avoiding harm to themselves and others. During breaks, teams can develop stronger relationships and trust as they spend time together that’s not purely work related.

For all the benefits of breaks, it’s not always easy to incorporate them in the workplace. Factors like business continuity, health and safety considerations, operational environment, resources and, of course, the interest of your employees, make “taking a break” a lot more complicated.

In May 2019, the legal requirements for rest and meal breaks for workers changed under the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2018. Previously, there was little in the way of guidelines or rules about when and how breaks should be taken. From 6 May 2019, the law returned the minimum requirement for breaks to be taken at prescribed times that can’t be varied without good reason.

This article will run you through the latest legal requirements and suggest three steps you can take to eliminate the risk of breaching the new standards for breaks in the workplace.

Rest, meal breaks and the Law

A break at work is a period (paid or unpaid) where an employee can step away from the job to refuel, recharge and re-energize. The requirements for breaks at work are a relatively recent addition to New Zealand law, having been introduced to the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2000 on 1 April 2009.

In the 10 years since the right of all workers to reasonable rest and meal breaks became a statutory requirement, the law has been amended twice: once in 2014 and again in 2019.

How could the new break rules affect your business?

The new provisions around breaks will affect most workplaces, because most workplaces have workers who need to rest and eat during their day.

Employees who aren’t receiving their break entitlements under the new law have the right to take their complaint to their employer, and to Employment NZ (or their Union if they are a union member) if they feel their complaint warrants escalation.

Where the complaint requires the intervention of a Labour Inspectorate (unlikely, but it happens) than you could face penalties for failing to meet break entitlements.

The new rest and meal break standards

There are two kinds of rest breaks in NZ law, and this doesn’t change. They are:

  1. paid shorter rest breaks that can be taken mid-morning and mid-afternoon; and
  2. the unpaid 30-minute meal break.

The latest changes passed by the government are intended to protect workers’ rights to rest by prescribing a minimum requirement for the time and duration of rest. This overturns the previous law which only specified that if agreement on breaks was not reached, the employer could determine a reasonable break time and duration or compensate the worker instead.

The following chart sets out the minimum break requirements under the new 2019 guidelines:

Rest and Meal Breaks from 6 May 2019

Work Period Rest Break Meal break
2-4 hours 1 x 10-minute paid rest break(around the half-way mark)
4-6 hours 1 x 10-minute paid rest break(around the 1/3 mark) 1 x 30-minute meal break (around the 2/3 mark)
6-8 hours 2 x 10-minute paid rest breaks (as close to possible around the ¼ and ¾ mark) 1 x 30-minute meal break (as close to possible at the ½ way mark)
Over 8 hours (during 1st 8 hours) 2 x 10-minute paid rest breaks (as close to possible around the ¼ and ¾ mark) 1 x 30-minute meal break (as close to possible at the ½ way mark)
Over 8 hours (the period after 8 hours) Repeat the above patterns for the period over 8 hours.

How strict are the new regulations around breaks?

You can agree with your employees on something different to the minimum break requirements that I’ve outlined in the chart, but if you don’t come to an agreement then these are the default timings and periods.

There are some exceptions. If you’re engaged in national security delivery or emergency services, where continuity is critical, you may agree with your employees to take breaks differently. In a situation where you can’t agree then you must compensate the affected employees for the lack of breaks with either alternative time off, financial payments, or both.

Remember that compensation for an employee will only be allowed instead of a break if there is a valid exemption and the requirements for compensation instead of a break are met. You can contact us at HR Assured if you need clarification of these exemptions.

Three steps to an effective break culture

There are three important things you can do to ensure that your organisation is meeting the new standards for breaks at work:

  1. Consider updating your existing employee’s employment agreements so that they comply with the new rest and meal break requirements.
  2. If you have a company policy around breaks, this will also need to be updated to ensure your guidelines match the current law.
  3. Consider working with your HR team or outsourced HR partner to build a culture of self-regulation and self-care when it comes to taking breaks at your workplace. This is a particularly valuable process if you have a workforce where employees work remotely or are engaged in high-risk, fatigue-inducing activities, such as long-haul driving. Even in an office environment, where it can seem relatively simple to enforce breaks, it’s still beneficial to ensure that your workers are genuinely taking the rest they need.

If you can get your business to take these three steps, you’re well on your way to having a compliant and effective break culture at your workplace.

Ensuring your workers are taking adequate breaks will have the added benefit of enhancing team productivity, innovation and drive.

As science writer, Ferris Jabr, summarises beautifully,

Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance.

You can find his full article here . It’s my recommended read for your next coffee break!

Vaughan Granier is National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ.