If you work in an office you're probably familiar with the slightly depressing desk lunch: fork in one hand, other hand on the keyboard, munching on a salad while you work. Why don't you take your full lunch break? Work expectations? Lack of time? Meetings and pressure and everything eating into your allotted period to just be for a while?
I rarely if ever take the full hour I'm allowed for my lunch due to a combination of stress about work, self-flagellation for work not yet done, and the fact that working online means that work (research, writing, emailing) is only one tab away from not work (stupid memes). As a result, I can easily meander onto Instagram without even meaning to throughout the day, and so I make myself work through lunch as both punishment and necessity. It sucks, but I feel like it's my own fault.
I recognize that being able to opt in and out of a lunch break is a privileged position. Sitting at a desk means I do very little physical work, so lunch breaks do not offer me vital relief from being on my feet or a much-needed moment to mentally process saving people’s lives. But for your average office worker, a midday break is something that we're entitled to but no longer feels strictly outlined.
Perhaps this is down to the new office culture that's evolving in co-working spaces, freelance jobs and startups, a culture that comes with the 'manage your own time' promise of freedom. This should theoretically let you break at any time around midday, however, what it actually means is that anyone could be working at any time, even during conventional 'lunch' hours. And if you’re the one who's inaccessible, it’s inexcusable.
This lack of clarity around lunchtime is made hazier by the rise and grind mentality that's swept over Instagram, where if you're not constantly hustling, you're failing at life. It’s not just the working conditions that encourage us to squeeze every bit of work out of our free time; we do it to each other. When your sense of worth (let alone your sense of survival) is tied up in the idea of working harder, smarter, faster, then desk lunches, like not being able to sleep, become something to brag about. It’s no wonder that when Totaljobs surveyed over 7,000 people in 2017, more than half said they don't take their full lunch break (even though they feel encouraged to do so).
But it’s all bullshit. Not taking breaks is making us worse at our jobs, with this 2011 study showing that taking breaks actually boosts a worker’s productivity. Instead we're dragging out tasks that could be done much faster. More importantly, lunch al desko (ugh) is making us unwell. They may be convenient but they have genuine health implications, from sore joints to slowing your metabolism, even to some types of cancer. That's to say nothing of the impact of sustained stress on your brain and body. Yikes.
All of which leads me to the radical decision to take my full lunch hour for a whole week. As an anxious person with obsessive traits I knew that 'switching off' for an hour would be hard, but I learned some important home truths...
On Monday I ate my lunch (defrosted bolognese with pasta, I'm very pro meal prepping, sorry!) at about 12.05 because I was starving, and continued to work as I ate. My plan was to eke out the whole hour by getting the actual lunch out of the way. Naughty, sure, but effective. At 1pm I turned off my phone notifications and meandered out of the office to a Waitrose I'd just discovered was a 10-minute walk away, assuming they'd have the loose (and therefore cheaper and plastic-free) produce I needed for the soup I was making for dinner. I was correct, and smugly swanned back to the office about half an hour later, proudly proclaiming to colleagues that I had a squash in my rucksack as though it were something to be proud of. Lunch breaks are good!
Today was a good day. We were sent one of the many 'new for 2020' fast food vegan launches (a perk of being the office vegan is I get dibs on the novelty Veganuary food), which served as lunch for the day. I then wandered off to do some Danish vocabulary for the first time in about three months. I've been slowly learning conversational Danish for honestly about four years now but I'm trying to take it seriously again AND having a whole lunch hour every day this week seems as good a time as any to get back into it. That, plus I'd just paid my semi-annual Babbel fee and had been reminded I was wasting money not doing it. Then, I went for a stroll with some pals from work to catch up about our New Year's Eves. I got back to my desk feeling ready to work for the first time since before the Christmas break.
After a low and slow week, today I felt like my head was beginning to snap into gear. I spent my lunch break walking to the specialty Asian food store to get some fermented salted black beans and kecap manis (I got Meera Sodha's amazing book for Christmas) and spent the walk listening to the end of Dolly Parton's America. The shift today was that when I got back to work I was ready to work.
This is when it started to get tricky. I wanted to spend the whole hour reading my book (Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, highly recommend) but without leaving the office I felt like I couldn't shake the dense clouds brought on by the combination of air con and working. Because I'm an idiot I didn't go out and instead sat in my funk, feeling crap. But at least I wasn't trying to write while I was doing it.
By this point in the week my brain was already fuzzy and full of bees and I didn’t respect the full hour, instead spending about half of it watching The Good Place and the other half trying to get my thoughts in order for a story I had to file in two hours. I’m lucky that this was the first real instance of peril in my work week but it really threw me. I felt like I couldn’t afford not to work but I didn’t anyway. It made me very anxious and mad at the concept of work, and I spent a lot of my time just clicking between different programs, unable to motivate myself to do anything because I felt paralysed by the options.
When I first pitched this story I had visions of taking long, luxurious lunches, cackling with friends over expensive juices and even more expensive salad bowls. Now I had the time, I'd get my nails done! Maybe I'd go to workout classes! But it was not to be, because I couldn't afford it. Though a full lunch hour may have been within reach, the person I envisioned I'd become during it is in a very different tax bracket. Instead, I filled the hour (which is somehow both loads of time and barely anything) with small errands and hobbies.
I was most shocked however by how much I'd internalised the idea that taking time for myself, time I was entitled to, was self-indulgent.
For so many of us working in offices (myself included), the world is not going to end if we spend 45 minutes reading a book instead of replying to emails about P&Ls – we're just encouraged to feel that way.
It would be impossible to completely revert our lunch habits to when lunch was lunch and work was work, mainly because that line was blurring long before Slack was invented. But having to think of things to do for an hour to distract me from stress, or getting tasks done that I normally neglect, was surprisingly hard and really affirming. Sitting in one place, squeezing your brain for nine hours is no way to live – and you should prioritise your own life and time at least as much as your career.