Can I do charity work during my lunch hour at work?

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Q: In my spare time I volunteer for a local charity - a cause that is very close to my heart. When there is a lot on, I take a few pieces of work into the office that I can do on my lunch hour. But now some of my colleagues have complained that I'm spending the company's time on it which I'm not! Isn't my lunch break my own time or are there rules for what I can and can't do in it?

A. Simply because a colleague has complained, it doesn't mean that your employer will take their side so start by taking a deep breath. Most employers are happy for staff to decide for themselves how and where they spend their lunch break. However, when lunchtime activities begin to encroach on company time or disturb colleagues, there may be legitimate cause for concern.

Working LunchIf, as in your case, the lunch break provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with your charity work you should start by asking your employer if what you're doing for the charity conflicts with the business. You risk being criticised if, without permission, you're using company resources for the benefit of another organisation - even if the work is done strictly within the lunch hour.

It is your employer's responsibility to look after your health, safety and welfare, as far as possible, while you are at work. Part of that is allowing you to take regular breaks during the working day. This is actually a legal requirement. Some of the best employers actively encourage staff to take proper rest breaks and ask that they avoid 'skipping' lunch or filling their break time with other similar activity - even if it is for a good cause! If spending your lunch hour on intense charity work leaves you less engaged with work activities afterwards because you haven't had a proper rest, then your employer is right to be concerned.

There is no law which dictates when you must take a rest break, so long as it is taken in a block and falls somewhere in the middle of your working day. If you are over the age of 18 and work a six hour shift, you're entitled to a 20 minute break which you can spend away from the workplace if you want to.

The rules on taking breaks at work might be written in your employment contract or the staff handbook. Sometimes, however, they simply form part of the organisation's standard practice. Find out what the rules are and how they apply to you: this is the easiest way to avoid ending up on the wrong side of a complaint.

This Q&A was originally published in the Financial Times.


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