Thursday, September 1, 2011

The lunch break

Question: how many of you take a lunch break at work? And I don't mean that you clock out for 30 minutes, but how many of you actually take a break? Get a change of scenery, maybe get outside? For me, it varies a lot, but I almost always take a 35 minute lunch. I also have the option to take 45 minute or 60 minute lunches at my office. Some days, I'm at my desk (with my computer locked, because I can't work when I'm not on the clock per company policy), just reading a book & eating. Sometimes, I go out for lunch. Sometimes I've brought my lunch, but I take the whole thing to Keller Fountain (which is across the street from where I work) and eat there. 

Imagine this with a hobo bathing in it, and you'll get the idea of my lunchtime views.

Today I ate lunch in the break room (you can read about it over on my food journal!), which isn't so bad - it's got floor to ceiling windows, and a view of Mt. Hood on clear days. It was certainly cheerier than never leaving my desk, plus, it's on a different floor, so I've got go up & down some stairs. 

I read this article contrasting the European work day, which often includes a three hour break, and the new ideas behind some companies like VendorSeek, who are encouraging their employees to take little to no lunch break. Well, it turns out that breaks are important, but the U.S. isn't talking a whole lot about it. When I was searching for news articles, blogs, etc. about lunch breaks, coffee breaks, any kind of breaks, I was finding mostly European news articles talking about how the lack of a lunch break can make worker productivity plummet. 

The closest thing I found in the US was a bit on Polished Prose, which was comparing various studies on the effects of "microbreaks" - breaks of five minutes or less - on those of us who work a computer all day. Here's my favorite part:

In 2000, Galinsky, Swanson, et al. reported a study of 42 data entry operators who took 5-minute breaks every hour, plus the 15-minute breaks required by law every 4 hours, for a total of 20 extra minutes of break time or 50 minutes total per shift. "[Workers] indicated that discomfort in several areas of the body, and eyestrain, were significantly lower under the supplementary than under the conventional schedule," said the researchers. "In addition, increases in discomfort of the right forearm, wrist and hand over the course of the work week under the conventional schedule were eliminated under the supplementary schedule. These beneficial effects were obtained without reductions in data-entry performance."
It seems that taking those microbreaks can help make the work day go by without putting too much repetitive stress on your body. Back when I was still in the call center, I used to do a few yoga poses at my desk during long calls with downtime, which helped a lot - it seems that taking breaks and stretching, getting up, etc. can help your body deal with the long periods of sitting. This research was pro-microbreak for sure. 

Again, American literature on lunch breaks is less conclusive - this article at eHow points out that eating a heavy lunch can make us sleepy, or that we may get distracted from the day's work. While this is true, I would say that science would seem to back the claim that the lunch break is overall a better thing - not only for worker productivity, but for health & happiness as well. 

What's interesting is that there is no Federal labor law that requires your employer to give you a lunch break. In fact, according to the Department of Labor's web site, Federal law doesn't require any breaks at all. This was a real shock to me when I lived in  Mississippi, which does not really have many state labor laws. I didn't know that when I started working in Mississippi, although my boss did let me know at a later time. The Department of Labor has this handy chart depicting meal period and this chart depicting rest period (break) labor laws by state. Check it out, there is no entry for Mississippi on either chart. In fact, only 9 states are listed on the rest period chart! Think about how different your working experience would be if you lived in a state like that and didn't have an employer who wanted to make sure you were healthy, happy, and getting the breaks you need. 

Contrast that with this article, written to help those moving to France adjust to their new life; any newcomers to France should be aware that most shops close between noon and two pm, that schools close as well and families often meet at home for a full lunch together, and that lunch breaks are even longer on the weekends. Part of me says "Wow! I'd love that!", while the other part thinks that I wouldn't want to have the day drag on that long. What do you think? Do you take actual breaks (for meals, microbreaks, etc.) at work? 


  1. I heard that France is following in the USA's footsteps and becoming obese. It seems like a 2-3 hour break would make the work day SO MUCH LONGER!

    I take a full hour lunch break and I often eat outside or in my car so that I can listen to talk radio. Personally I LOVE to leave my work building and venture into some sort of different environment.

    Breaks are VERY important for any cubical job. :-)

  2. I agree, I think a long lunch like the ones you mentioned in France would make the day just drag on. As it is now, I rarely take breaks. I know it's good for me to get out and take a break, but most of the time I'm not really doing stressful work. And I can easily pause throughout the day to check my facebook or funny sites I like to follow. Depending on what's going on in the office, my whole day can end up feeling like a big break. I know from experience that getting out of the office and getting some fresh air can make my day go so much faster and improve my mood. But I have trouble getting myself away from my desk. I wear heels to the office sometimes and I try to remember flats but sometimes I forget, and those days I definitely don't want to walk around. Plus, we live in Portland which is rainy more often than it is sunny and that deters me from going outside as well. Since we have more months of dreary weather I get used to avoiding outside. Basically, I just make excuses in spite of the fact that I've proven to myself taking a break is awesome.
    And more to the point, great post. Got me thinking, clearly :)

  3. @Raina - I don't know if it would make the day seem longer, or more enjoyable. It's a lifestyle I might like to try, if Adam and I both worked close to home.

    @K - I think the important thing about breaks is just getting up & stretching for a minute, or resting your eyes from the computer screen. Sometimes I end up going online during my breaks because I don't get the chance to check the sites I'd like to the rest of the time, and I know it's bad.

    I wear heels to work fairly often, and I usually make myself wear them all day long (good incentive to get comfy heels!), but I actually like wearing them in the rain - it keeps your feet out of the wet!