A number of people around me work in the medical field. They are doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists and more, trying to make people (feel) better. As such, it’s never been a secret to me that generally, people in medicine work hard. They make long hours, and often have barely enough time to sit down and have lunch.

Although I knew this before, it struck me again in a conversation with a good doctor friend (or ‘good friend doctor’?). He indicated that during the shifts at his hospital, he never had the time to sit down to have lunch with his colleagues. Rather, he would simply find five minutes to quickly consume the sandwiches he made that morning — and be as efficient about it as possible.

This got me thinking. Apparently, there are a number of professions where work breaks are not normal. Like doctors who work in a hospital. Or even waiters working in a restaurant. In such professions, taking half an hour to sit down with your colleagues, eat your lunch, and talk about football or the weather is a no-go. But isn’t there a law that prevents this? And why do these differences in work breaks exist at all?


The Legal Basis for (Mandatory) Work Breaks

In most countries, labor laws dictate a minimal amount of breaks. That is, if a work shift goes over a fixed amount of hours. In the UK for instance, these rules apply:

  • Workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break during their working day, if they work more than 6 hours a day.
  • Workers have the right to 11 hours rest between working days, and
  • Workers have the right to either an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each two weeks

In the USA, federal law (i.e. law that applies to all states), doesn’t give workers specific rights to meal or rest breaks. Some states have implemented such laws (e.g. allowing workers at least 30 minutes to eat if they work more than 5 or 6 hours), but many have not.

In contrast, Dutch law looks more like UK law; In the Netherlands, workers who work more than 5.5 hours should get a minimum of 30 minutes break. When working more than 10 hours, you have the right to a break of 45 minutes. However, these rules may differ in collective agreements that are set for specific professions. For many professions though, the collective agreements do not fundamentally differ from the law on this issue. For instance, for general practitioners and doctors training to be specialists (or those that are not), there are no additional regulations in the collective agreement regarding work breaks (for more specifics, see this document). And even in the hospitality business, in the Netherlands workers have the same rights as prescribed by law.

Considering this legal basis, why then do people in these professions still lack work breaks? After all, if it’s described by law, so shouldn’t it also be actively applied?


It’s a Cultural Issue

Obviously, the law isn’t always strictly applied in reality. As such, the absence of work breaks in different professions is often a cultural issue. Interestingly, this culture can form on different levels. Going back to the medical example, I’m willing to bet that on a national level, the amount of breaks for an aspiring medical specialist (in other words, nearly none) look pretty much the same. Perhaps internationally there are some differences, but if you’re a doctor training to be a specialist working for hospital A or hospital B, chances are that your amount of work breaks do not fundamentally differ.

This is pretty similar if you work in the hospitality industry. If you work as a waiter, you know you can’t expect a break if it’s very busy at the bar or restaurant you work at. But in other professions, the issue of not having work breaks can stem from a very local culture. For instance, when I worked as a civil servant, some departments (mine included) would go down to the cafetaria for lunch every day. In contrast, direct colleagues at other departments would simply eat lunch at their desk.


Implementing Work and Lunch Breaks

Luckily, because it is a cultural issue and not a legal one, it may be easier to create change. Obviously, this is easier when the ‘no-break-culture’ is very local. It’s not so difficult to tell your boss: “Let’s have a proper lunch break, just like our colleagues at other departments do”.

In contrast, if this culture is present on a sector-wide level, it is much more difficult to bring about change. That means you’re going against a pre-existing norm, and it would be difficult to suddenly start implementing proper lunch breaks.

But aside from how difficult it is to make this change, we should also consider how important this change could be. In industries like hospitality, it is relatively less important to provide people with lunch breaks. Certainly, I do think everyone is entitled to work breaks, and we/they should campaign to get them.

But in the case of medical professionals, the argument is clearer. The risks that come with making mistakes (for instance, when you’re tired) are much more important. So important in fact, that it is odd that this cultural issue is so pervasive. And in that sense, perhaps breaks should even be enforced.