I’ve become a lady who lunches. After years of dining al desko, I’ve finally discovered the pleasures of a lunch break. Not that I can take any credit for this new-found wisdom. Lack of an office canteen and a strict ‘no-eating-at-desk’ policy had far more to do with it: No break, no food. Necessity may be a good teacher, but hunger is even better.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes confidently predicted his grandchildren’s generation would work no more than three hours a day. How wrong can you be? Not only does the UK have some of the longest working hours in Europe but 60% of us don’t even take a lunch break. It’s all a far cry from the Hong Kong stock-exchange where traders, hardly a profession known for shirking on the job, were up-in-arms at their lunch break being cut to just one hour! It’s not even necessarily any good for UK business – Yes, companies may be getting anything up to 16 extra days a year out of us, but they reckon it costs them around £50m a day in lost productivity. All this sandwiching-at-desk, SAD living does little except reduce concentration and increase stress, both mental and physical.
I don’t know whether taking a lunch break has increased my productivity, but it’s certainly made me happier. Sometimes, it’s the casual conversations in the kitchen: Getting to know colleagues in something other than a work context has given a much greater sense of belonging, of being part of the team. I’ve even discovered the most difficult managers can be human after all. Occasionally, it’s the luxury of running errands (no more weekends spent chained to domestic chores). Mostly, it’s the quiet time. As often as not, I’ll grab a few moments of private escape – walk round the block, soak up the sun in the park, read a book in a local cafe. On those Herculean days when tasks slither and multiply all around you, doubling and tripling with every attack on the to-do list, getting out of the office has become a survival strategy, a tactical retreat, a chance to regroup and rethink; Even when everything is going according to plan, the change of perspective is still so valuable. Why forever run uphill and never once stop to admire the view?
So what’s taken so long? Why have I only just figured out a lunch break is actually a Good ThingTM ? Doctors, psychologists, magazines have been singing its praises for decades. By comparison with drinking less or exercising more, their usual nags, stopping work and taking a break ought to be a doddle. At its most extreme, the pressure of work and cultural expectations can make even the idea of a lunch break impossible, let alone the reality. I’ve worked in such an office and will never forget the fallout when a colleague disappeared briefly one lunch-hour and wasn’t immediately on hand for the boss. In fact, one in seven of us deliberately work through lunch in order to impress the management. As Ron Sims, VP at Right Management says, in these difficult economic times, you “don’t want to be seen as somebody who is not fully contributing.”
But even when I wasn’t working for some wannabe Gordon Gekko, I’d still usually eat at my desk – there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. With UK businesses increasingly relocating from city centres to out-of-town industrial estates, choices are often limited to either a concrete carpark or a noisy, crowded canteen – hardly places to relax and unwind. So many horror stories are told about the challenges of working in London – the nightmare commute (definitely), the brutal working culture (maybe) – it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to be right in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. I now have at least 8 delis, 6 pubs, 3 restaurants and a greasy spoon all within 5 minutes walk of the office – and that’s just the food options, never mind the parks, museums and shops. There’s even a scuba diving club: Clearly I’m a lunchtime underachiever just settling for a sandwich.
Not that London lunch-hours themselves are perfect. Far from it. The UK climate is too unforgiving for a start. It’s amazing how much more appealing staying at your desk can seem when it’s pissing it down outside. Drowning in work is one thing, looking like a drowned rat after your lunch hour is quite another. There’s a time and a place for a wet T-Shirt and a meeting with the boss just ain’t one of them. Nor is this the only price to pay for taking a break. London’s reputation as a cripplingly expensive city is well deserved – £4 for a sandwich here, £6 for a salad there, it all soon mounts up.
Taking a break may be priceless but sadly there’s still no such thing as a free lunch.