Working through unpaid breaks as a locum doctor
What breaks do I get as a locum doctor?
As a locum doctor, your contract with the Trust or locum agency will set out the rest break requirements per shift. These breaks are usually unpaid.
These vary from Trust to Trust, but usually you will have 1 unpaid 30-minute break for a 5-hour shift, and 2 unpaid 30-minute breaks for a shift over 9 hours (as stipulated by the BMA 2016 contract).
This means that (typically) a 10-hour shift will only pay you for 9 hours of work as you will be expected to be spending 1 hour of the shift on break.
If you are unsure of the terms that apply to you, check in with the rota coordinator, medical staffing or your locum agency to get a copy of the T&Cs and the rest break policy.
What can I do if I work through my break?
Often, locum doctors will be pressured to work through their breaks. This might be due to a patient emergency, but often is it due to general staffing pressures.
We would strongly advocate that you do not set a precedent for doing this, if possible. Not only is it unfair for you to work whilst not being paid, but it also negatively impacts patient care when you do not take some time to eat, hydrate, or rest during a shift.
Working unpaid may give you a negative experience of a department or hospital which means you may be less likely to work for them again, and could cause the department to struggle to retain or recruit locum doctors in the future.
Of course, there may be extenuating circumstances in an emergency where you cannot take your break. If this happens there are a number of things you can do.
Here are some proactive steps you can take:
✅ In advance of a shift, discuss with the rota coordinator their preference in the event that you cannot take your break during your shift. You can offer to leave early, or to charge for the extra time worked. Make sure you get their response in writing.
✅ If you have had to work through a break unexpectedly, speak to the rota coordinator and ask whether they would prefer for you to invoice for the extra time worked, or to leave your next shift at a pre-agreed earlier time.
✅ If it's agreed that you can add the time to your timesheet, make sure to clearly explain on the timesheet that you had to work longer due to an unforeseen emergency (and that has been agreed with the relevant person).
How can I stop this happening again?
If the department do not agree to pay you for the breaks you were not able to take (or allow you to leave early), then the responsibility rests on you to enforce your break times.
In this situation, you can:
👉 Clearly explain to your team that you have contracted breaks, and state firmly when you are taking your break and that they can contact you in an emergency, but should not be contacted otherwise. Explain that you will manage routine tasks when you return.
👉 If you regularly get interrupted on your rest breaks, then speak to the rota coordinator or booking coordinator highlighting this issue. If the ward culture does not respect your break times then you may be able to negotiate shorter shifts without scheduled break times to accommodate this.
👉 As a last resort, if you find that a particular Trust is being consistently difficult about break times or challenging your payments, then you may want to feedback to HR or the guardian of safe working.
As a locum doctor, you are responsible for advocating for yourself and standing up for your rights, even if this doesn't come naturally to you. By taking these steps you protect yourself and your patients, and are likely to have a longer and more productive period as a locum. Your locum agency should be able to support you through these issues if you raise them and ask them for help.
To read more about rights as a locum doctor, check out this article: Understanding Your Rights as a Locum Doctor.
This article is part of a wider series of resources and guides that are designed to support you as a locum doctor, covering areas such as getting your first job, managing your finances, understanding your rights, and many more. Visit our Locum Doctor Hub for everything you need to know about locuming today.
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