Rest periods during working hours are recognised as a basic right of workers in the EU. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union stipulates that ‘every worker has the right to limitation of maximum working hours, to daily and weekly rest periods and to an annual period of paid leave’ (Article 31(2)).  Furthermore, the ILO considers that different types of rest from work are critical to ensure the health and well-being of workers. 
Council Directive 93/104/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (as amended by Directive 2000/34) provided – for the first time at EU level – for a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours a day, a rest break when the working day is longer than six hours, and a minimum rest period of one day a week. This was superseded in 2000 by Directive 2000/34/EC which covered sectors and activities excluded from the original Directive. Finally, in 2003, Directive 2003/88/EC updated these two earlier ones and is generally known as the Working Time Directive. As set out in its Preamble:
All workers should have adequate rest periods. The concept of ‘rest’ must be expressed in units of time, i.e. in days, hours and/or fractions thereof. Community workers must be granted minimum daily, weekly and annual periods of rest and adequate breaks. It is also necessary in this context to place a maximum limit on weekly working hours.
- European Parliament and Council of the European Union: Directive 2003/88/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 November 2003 concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time
The Working Time Directive sets out the definitions outlined below.
- ‘Rest period’ means any period that is not working time.
- ‘Working time’ means any period during which the worker is working, at the employer’s disposal and carrying out their activity or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practice.
- ‘Adequate rest’ means that workers have regular rest periods, the duration of which is expressed in units of time and which are sufficiently long and continuous to ensure that, as a result of fatigue or other irregular working patterns, they do not cause injury to themselves, to fellow workers or to others and that they do not damage their health, either in the short or longer term.
The Working Time Directive also establishes provisions for the three types of rest periods.
The directive calls on Member States to take the measures necessary to ensure that, when the working day is longer than six hours, every worker is entitled to a rest break. The directive gives priority to collective agreements over legislation in determining the EU standard. The duration and the terms on which such rest breaks are granted should be laid down in collective agreements or agreements between the two sides of industry and, only in their absence, by national legislation. Some specific groups, such as young workers (Council Directive 94/33/EC) and workers using display screens (Directive 90/270/EEC), are entitled to specific conditions regarding rest breaks from work.
- Council of the European Union: Council Directive 94/33/EC of 22 June 1994 on the protection of young people at work
- Council of the European Communities: Council Directive of 29 May 1990 on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment (fifth individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16 (1) of Directive 87/391/EEC) (90/270/EEC)
Daily rest periods
Every worker is entitled to a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours for every 24-hour period, potentially implying a lawful 13-hour working day with at least one long break or two or more shorter breaks, the intervals being not more than six hours apart. Nevertheless, a working time regime that opted for such a long working day would be constrained by the provisions on maximum hours in a working week.
Weekly rest periods
The directive regulates that, for each seven-day period, every worker is entitled to a minimum uninterrupted rest period of 24 hours plus the 11-hour daily rest. However, there is an ambiguous provision at the end of Article 5: ‘If objective, technical or work organisation conditions so justify, a minimum rest period of 24 hours may be applied’. The meaning of this exception is not clear. Most likely, it refers to the requirement that the 24-hour weekly rest period be connected to a previous 11-hour rest period, so as to constitute a solid block of 35 hours’ rest per week. However, it appears that a minimal 24-hour period may be justified in some circumstances. The only other possibility would seem to be that the provision for a 24-hour rest period is intended to be added to the 11 hours’ minimum daily rest and distributed throughout the week, meaning no consecutive 24-hour period.
In 2019, Eurofound published an overview of regulations, research and practice of rest breaks from work. 
Related dictionary terms