We’ve all seen the data on our newsfeeds that scarfing down leftovers in Tupperware containers while catching up on emails at our desks is bad for us. We’re reminded constantly that breaks are essential for productivity but science shows that collectively, only 1 in 5 five people eats lunch during the work week away from a desk. On top of this, no one wants to hear you chewing on a conference call (for real, please mute yourself if eating).
But let's face it, it can be challenging to find the time to get away during the workday. And even if we do follow the research, what is the appropriate amount of time for a lunch break? Socially we refer to the “lunch hour” but should we really take an hour each day?
I discussed the topic with four working women, two managers and two individual contributors, and got surprisingly passionate responses.
And while this is impacted by the nature of your work (like whether you’re billing time or are a salaried employee), the company you work for, whether you work in the private or public sector, as well as simply your workload at a given time or time of year, some trends emerged.
We gotta eat, but many seemed to prioritize breaks over focusing on a meal. One woman, a healthcare policy professional who works at an agency, shared that she does not advise her team to take an hour each day but rather just when they really need that mental and physical break, because in her line of work that time will need to be made up one way or another (read: an earlier start or a later finish).
Instead, she encourages her direct reports to take a 20-minute talk every day, she reminds them that they don’t have to be eating or taking a smoke break to leave the office — a point that is often neglected to be said by managers!
Are lunch hours paid? That depends on the nature of your job. It’s not just vendors and service agencies that bill time that think about their lunches and breaks differently; this rings true for government employees as well. State and federal employees who bill time need to see their breaks differently. But despite that 60-minute window not being a paid window, the time away is still valued and seen as the employee’s right to take. A long-time government employee shared that she doesn’t think people should be held to strict rules so long as they get their work done on time and well.
Particularly with the interconnectedness of the workplace thanks to technology managers increasingly seem to encourage breaks, just like they are becoming more open to remote work and flexible schedules. Sloan White, a Brand Manager at a large financial intuition who’s managed teams emphasizes putting our connected workplace to work for us, “We all carry our office in our pockets, and as long as I can track someone down or be tracked down then I think a break is fair game.”
But there are two sides to every coin and if you work at a small, service-oriented firm the rules and views may be a little different. How long is a normal lunch break, for example? Does lunch count as work hours? I spoke with a long-time medical professional that has a 60-minute lunch break baked into her work agreement. For her, not taking that time would be “lost income.” This rings true for employees who work in areas like retail or who clock in and out. For them, this could be as wasteful as unused PTO days (another nationwide epidemic).
At the end of the day, it’s about striking the right balance. If you take a sit down lunch with a friend or colleague on a Monday, aim to not repeat the next day. Likewise, it can be smart to weave a long lunch into your schedule appropriately: like if you have a day stacked with meetings and deadlines or a morning doctor’s appointment, that’s probably not the best day to step away for an hour or more. But if you’re hourly or have lunch worked into your contract, by all means, take the breaks that are your right.
White shared a story that perhaps sums it up best, “Meals are an important part of daily, and cultural life. When I was in Spain, one day I went to a big siesta lunch with my mom’s cousin who owns his own school and manages about 10 people. That lunch was one of the best I’ve ever had. It was a good time for friendship, conversation, and food. And it stuck with me. I’m not proposing we all do that every day, but I think a lunch break can be good for the soul, especially with coworkers.”
So if you’re hungry and need a break, get away and eat. If you’re in the zone or have a lot to get done and need to leave at 5 sharp opt for a shorter break or work through lunch. A hungry, burnt out employee is not a good employee. So strike that balance, find time for a good lunch when you need it, but use your time wisely—both professionally and personally—I can promise you the work will be there when you get back to your desk.
Jane Scudder is a certified coach & workshop facilitator. She also works as a strategy & marketing consultant and teaches a Career Development & Preparation course at Loyola University Chicago. She lives and works remotely in Chicago, IL.