Toilet breaks at work; how long they are, how frequent they are, whether they’re being monitored, and what is deemed acceptable in this area can be a tricky HR topic to manage. Excessive toilet breaks or employees spending increasingly long periods of time away from their workstations can be a real issue for employers when productivity drops and the bottom line is hit.
It’s important therefore to know how to manage conversations and policies around these often sensitive topics to ensure a productive and supportive workplace without overstepping or underperforming when it comes to your responsibilities relating to Health & Safety and HR laws.
Things To Consider
As there is no specific law around toilet breaks, if the length, frequency, or reason for toilet breaks is causing an issue in productivity or employee morale at your place of work, then it’s up to employers to take steps to address the problem in the most suitable way.
Health and Safety Laws require employers to provide adequate facilities and arrangements to ensure employee welfare whilst at work. It’s fair to say therefore that bathroom breaks fall squarely into this camp, and it means that limiting access to the toilet is not a viable option.
The best approach therefore would be for employers to talk to their employees when issues surrounding toilet breaks at work arise in order to better understand how they can support the employee to get the outcome the business needs whilst getting to the bottom of any real issue that may exist.
Starting conversations sensitivity is often the best route to manage issues relating to toilet breaks at work. This gives employees the opportunity to share the reason for their behaviour and for employers to share their expectations, or a reminder of the guidelines around relevant policies or support available at work.
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If you are experiencing issues with employees taking excessive toilet breaks at work, or are considering changing your policy around rest periods or phone use to combat time away from work, then Neathouse Partners can help. By taking the steps you need to manage these situations in line with employment, Health and Safety, and HR law, you can ensure you remain compliant whilst your staff feel supported and your organisation remains productive.
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Read on to find out more about toilet breaks at work including frequently asked questions about this can be managed by employers, what your responsibilities are and what you must provide to your employees. to meet your employer obligations under UK employment law.
What Does The Law Say On Toilet Breaks?
The number of toilet breaks and the time allowed per break isn’t currently governed by any specific employment law. This doesn’t mean that employers can’t choose to set their own reasonable restrictions depending on the demands of the job in question.
Any organisation wishing to do this should tread carefully and ensure that any guidance set is in no way discriminatory to protected characteristics.
What Would Be Acceptable?
What is considered an acceptable policy around toilet breaks at work will very much depend on the job and industry in question and there will be no one size fits all solution.
For example, a lone office worker couldn’t be asked to wait for somebody else to relieve them of their duties before leaving their post, but perhaps this could be reasonably expected in a factory production line scenario.
Similarly, a reasonable restriction might be that in order to take a toilet break in a customer-facing role, staff must be relieved by another before leaving their post.
If you don’t want to implement regulations specifically around taking toilet breaks themselves, employers may be able to tackle the root cause of excessive bathroom breaks with related policies.
The Real Issue
Quite often, employees may use toilet breaks as a way to access their phones or to escape pressurised working environments. This means that employers could look into introducing a policy around phone use at work or evaluate their working practices as a way to manage the specific issues that are manifesting as longer or more frequent toilet breaks at work.
By either having a blanket ban on all electronic communication devices, or providing set areas of the building or times within an employees shift to use them, everybody knows where they stand and breaches of the policy can be easily identified and dealt with using standard disciplinary procedures.
Similarly, if toilet breaks are being used as a way to escape pressurised working environments, then conversations need to be had about the best way to manage workload and the employee support services that are available.
Conversations With Employees
Toilet habits can be a sensitive topic, especially if it’s the cause of potential disciplinary action, resentment from colleagues due to unfair distribution of work, or result in awkward management conversations in the workplace.
If you have noticed, or it has been reported to you, that certain members of staff are frequently visiting the toilet or are spending a large amount of time away from their duties whilst in the bathroom, then it’s time to tackle the issue head-on.
We would advise setting up an informal meeting to discuss the issue with the relevant individual in a private space as the first step. In the meeting, employers should outline the reason for calling the meeting and give the employee the opportunity to share any information that may be relevant and could offer an explanation for problems identified.
Reasonable explanations could be a legitimate medical condition, mental health or personal issue that is causing the need for frequent breaks during their working hours.
Employers should be aware that a medical problem may qualify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. An employer is obliged to make reasonable adjustments to assist a disabled employee and this may include adjustments linked to toilet use. Medical evidence should be obtained to address the issue of whether the employee is likely to be disabled and if so, what adjustments could be made.
If they’re unable to provide an explanation, despite the opportunity to do so, the very process of having this conversation may discourage them from repeating the behaviour further.
In any case, sensitivity is key, and the aim of the meeting should be to discuss ways in which you can assist the employee in their situation. For example, you could offer advice on any relevant employee assistance programme that exists or make any reasonable adjustments needed to support the employee, such as moving their desk closer to toilet facilities if frequent breaks are needed.
If the issue of a member of staff’s toilet habits has been raised by one of their colleagues, you should thank them for bringing the matter to your attention and advise them that you will address it with the individual concerned.
Why You Shouldn’t Restrict Toilet Breaks
Restricting access to toilets may negatively impact an employee’s health, especially if they have genuine medical need to use the facilities more than others. As the opportunity to be able to go to the toilet when needed is fundamental to an employee’s health, wellbeing and dignity, toilet breaks really shouldn’t be restricted by employers.
The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst at work. This means that the employer has a duty to support all employees and any individual health needs they may have with reasonable adjustments in the workplace.
Restricting toilet breaks could quite easily be seen as a breach of these Health and Safety regulations and could well lead to detrimental effects on employee health or open employers up to claims of unfair treatment, victimisation and discrimination.
Restricting toilet breaks could:
- Lead to claims of discrimination
- Lead to claims of breaches in health and safety
- Cause medical problems such as digestive issues, urinary tract infections or kidney problems to arise
- May disrupt scheduled medication needs
Disciplinary action arising around protected characteristics should be treated very carefully in the workplace. Employees cannot be punished or treated differently based on a number of protected characteristics such as gender, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
For example, when it comes to toilet breaks at work, this means employers shouldn’t punish somebody for using the toilet too often if they have a valid medical condition that means frequent loo breaks are required. If they did, they would be open to claims of discrimination.
Medical conditions that may increase the need for employees to use the toilet include; prostate problems in men, menopause or pregnancy in women,
Examples where a protected characteristic may come into toilet break at work discussions include;
- Pregnant women
- When employees are taking prescribed medication
- During menopause
- Health conditions
Although having specific restrictions around toilet breaks is generally discouraged, if you decide that your organisation wants to implement or make changes to rules around toilet breaks, then this should be clearly visible, accessible and communicated within the company handbook.
If the changes you make are different to the original contract signed by staff then you will need to hold a meeting to discuss those changes before making them.
Remember that employees are likely to react poorly to having limitations put on to their toilet breaks, especially if none previously existed. This could in turn lead to a blow to workplace morale and productivity.
It’s important therefore to weigh up the real world effect of any issues you currently have regarding toilet breaks at work with the impact any changes in policy could potentially cause. Making changes to policies regarding mobile phone or tablet use at work may be a better way to address the problem.
How To Tackle Excessive Toilet Breaks At Work
Quite often, when you notice a problem regarding a specific issue, you often need to take steps to address the root cause, rather than treating the symptoms that are being presented.
By this we mean, you may have noticed that toilet breaks are a problem, but by addressing the cause of this, rather than putting a blanket ban on toilet breaks (to use an extreme example), you may stand a better chance of returning better productivity to the workplace.
One common example for frequent loo breaks is so that employees can use their phones to make or take personal calls, check-in on social media or respond to personal emails etc. If this kind of activity is a problem in your workplace, employers should consider amending their policy on electronic devices.
Perhaps by removing barriers from using personal devices at desks would mean they don’t feel the need to hide their use. Or, if you can provide dedicated ‘phone checking breaks’, this might also help employees to re-align their priorities when at work.
Equally, if you know an employee is going to need access to their phone to manage difficult situations such as childcare, ill relatives etc, then giving them permission to have these conversations at work can be important.
Even if you are happy to take a lenient approach to electronic device usage, always set expectations and outline the repercussions that may follow if boundaries are frequently breached.
Conversations between employees and employers regarding toilet breaks at work can be a minefield to navigate but we hope this article has given you some clear points of reference to follow when tackling this topic at your place of work.
To recap, although there is no law specifically protecting toilet breaks for employees, employers have a duty to ensure that employees are safe and their wellbeing is supported, this includes having access to appropriate facilities and being able to take toilet breaks when required.
As every employee has different individual needs when it comes to their bathroom habits, it can be a particularly contentious issue between staff if individuals feel others are using breaks as an excuse not to pull their weight when it comes to workload.
If an employee appears to be taking frequent or prolonged toilet breaks then the best course of action is often to have an informal discussion with them in the first instance. This provides an opportunity for the employee to share any concerns they have or offer an explanation for their actions and the employer can then offer suitable support or assistance to manage the situation as required.
If no legitimate reason for excessive toilet breaks exists then you may want to consider a monitoring / disciplinary procedure if their actions are causing work targets or deadlines not to be met.
Neathouse Partners can assist employers with all aspects of employment and HR law including providing advice and support when managing discussions around health conditions, workplace policies and disciplinary actions in relation to toilet breaks at work.
If you need advice on managing discussions with employees around sensitive subjects. our expert team is here to help.
Contact us today for an informal chat about your needs.