“I’m waaay too busy to take my lunch break!” Have you ever said that to yourself? I bet you have- everyone has at some point or another. Believe me, I’ve been there and done that way too many times in the past, working full-time as a financial trader at ultra-competitive investment firms. But making this a habit is fool-hardy and downright dangerous. There is tons of evidence that shows that far from being counter-productive, taking your lunch break, especially when you’re at your busiest, is doing both yourself and your employer a favour. Let me drive it home a bit further: you really can’t afford not to take your lunch break.
A recent study carried out by Bupa (an international healthcare conglomerate) revealed that more than two-thirds of employees don’t take their lunch breaks. What’s more, of those that say they ‘take lunch’, significant proportions of these:
- Rarely leave the workplace
- Usually eat at their desk
- Respond to work calls and emails during this time
- Hardly do anything relaxing or rejuvenating
Sounds familiar? I’ve got news for you- nothing in the above list actually counts as taking a lunch break! Interestingly too, the same study showed the telling effects of missing lunch, with more than half of the workers saying that not taking a lunch break puts them in a foul mood and causes them to feel unproductive in the afternoon. Even more worrisome is that nearly a third admitted feeling physically ill at work after not taking a lunch break.
I mean, I get it - the workplace culture you’re in may be one in which turnover, revenue and perceived high productivity 24/7 is treasured above all. However, increasing demands by companies has led to a rise in stress-related illnesses and, ironically, decreased productivity. According to a Forbes study, among the main reasons employees cite for choosing not to take lunch are: having too much work to do and employees seeing their boss not take lunch and therefore feeling pressured into not taking one too. In a similar vein, the Telegraph's chart below shows the reasons given in the recent Bupa study.
Apart from the too heavy workload (that's a whole 'nother problem we'll address later on) and eating at the desk (I repeat, this does not count as a break), we see lots of responses having to do with organisational culture, perceived expectations and the urge to look 150% committed to one's employer by pretending you’re super glued to your chair for 8 hours (or more!). I’ve seen this first-hand where employers were strangely impressed with colleagues who hardly ever took their lunch breaks (let’s call this type ‘Betty’), or those that munched on a sandwich held precariously in one hand while attempting to type with the other (let’s call them ‘George’).
While it may be tempting to become either Betty or George, especially when we’re under pressure to meet a deadline, consider what this does. No matter how steely your determination, extensive periods of time without any interruptions leads to an inability to focus and limited performance. You’re probably familiar with the often-cited economic principle of “diminishing returns”; it can be applied here. That’s right - the more prolonged periods of time we spend concentrated solely on a task, the less productive we actually are, and the more prone we are to make mistakes. Research has even found that eating at your desk actually makes you more stressed and less creative. That’s because studies show that our minds are designed in such a way that in order for us to be at our peak performance, taking breaks is necessary for us to re-group, re-focus and re-energise ourselves. Doing so helps us to be more productive, and less likely to succumb to workplace stress and overwhelm. Tackling a particularly complex problem? Taking a breather will enable you to come back to it with fresh eyes and more creative juices flowing than if you had just sat blankly staring at the screen.
Reclaim your lunch break
Ok, so now that we’re all convinced about the merits of taking our lunch break (ahem...if you’re not, read all the above again until you are!), let’s talk about some of the fun things you can during this time. Why not set a goal to try a mix of these each week; experiment with what you find really helps you feel like you’ve had some downtime. Eventually, I guarantee you’ll be making long lists of all the things you want to do in that precious lunch break of yours. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Invite a friend or even your co-worker pal to lunch at a cozy local restaurant or café that has a killer lunch time menu you always wanted to try (caveat: do NOT talk about work!)
- Walk around a nearby park. If it’s a nice sunny day, sit on a bench and soak in some lovely mood-enhancing Vitamin D.
- Do you have a summer book list? Why not download a few and read during your break?
- Always wish you had more time to paint your fingers (totally me!), this may be a prime time to do it.
- Going on holiday abroad soon? Whether the answer is yes or no, how about learning a new language using the Duolingo language app? Each “lesson” is short and easy to go through.
- Call your Mom (you know she’ll be so happy hear from you) or a friend you haven’t gotten a chance to catch up with in a while.
- Browse the local shops.
- Take a power nap (please do set an alarm!)
- Have a sports facility or gym nearby? Why not do a quick circuit, or cool off in the pool?
- Get your hair cut at a nearby barber / hair salon. While you’re at it, go on, throw in that scalp or neck massage.
- At the very least, just get up, move; for goodness sake, stop staring at that computer screen!
So, rise up people and reclaim your lunch break. I’m not inciting any workplace revolution here, but rather, simply encouraging you to take advantage of a provision to boost your overall well-being that you may have been overlooking till now. After all, this is why you’re allowed a lunch break in your contract in the first place. It’s not because your employer thinks you need one hour (ok, 20-30 minutes if your boss is particularly stingy) to physically ingest some food. Deep down he/she knows that breaks are necessary; so why would you voluntarily pass them up?
The possibilities are endless as to how you can make sure you have some great “me time” during your work day. It’s a win-win all round. Your body will thank you, you’ll feel more energised, and your motivation will increase (you might actually even look forward to coming into work, gasp). Don’t expect to return to the office to a round of applause or your employer profusely thanking you for taking your lunch break; but don’t let that put you off, because be assured that even if your superior might not be smart enough to know/recognise it, the company will benefit from your decision, by means of the higher quality work the new ultra-productive, engaged you will be able to produce.
Are you determined to reclaim your lunch break starting now? What do you plan to use yours for? Let me know in the comments.