The 2-Minute Thought: The State of the Workday Lunch

If you were asked what your lunch break at work is like, you may well answer, “What lunch break?” 

Forget about the multi-course restaurant meal from decades past.  Forget about the lunch hour between 12 and 1 -- something The Washington Post calls “a charming relic of the past, like phone cords and typewriters.”  Today many workers take no break at all – and often by choice.  Lunch breaks are out of fashion. 

NPR has reported that only one in five workers take a lunch breakThe Washington Post has reported that 39% eat lunch at their desk.  And as we all know, that desk lunch often consists of stuffing a sandwich into one’s mouth in ten minutes.  Or it involves a microwave, takeout cartons, and crumbs in the keyboard. 

The demise of lunch is happening around the worldThe Financial Times recently looked at the workday lunch in four cities outside the U.S., and the theme of time pressure was common.  Even in Paris, workers “have succumbed to the 21st century trend of grab-and-go in the Anglo-Saxon mode.”  A Tokyo employee at an online retailer says, “I want to get out of the office but I do not have time.”  A Nairobi worker at a large telecom company says, “I used to go out for lunch a lot more.  Now it’s much more al desko.”

As the line between work time and leisure time has blurred, and as we’ve moved from 9–5 to 24-7, discrete lunch breaks can seem mystifying.  We are in perpetual motion.  We always have something to finish first.  Paying too much attention to lunch seems unproductive.

The irony, of course, is that staying at one’s desk without a break is what is unproductive.  The expert advice is that you must stand up, socialize, do a different activity, or change your environment to renew your creativity and engagement in work.  But it takes a fair amount of discipline to take a break.  Strange as it may sound, not taking a break has become a form of laziness, just like not exercising.  In fact, it’s often easier to just keep ploughing through.

Business Insider had a tongue-in-cheek piece on the nine things unsuccessful people do on their lunch break, and topping the list was “Eat at their desks” (after which the author immediately admitted, “I’m a total hypocrite.  I’m writing this article as I’m eating a falafel bowl at my desk”).  Other bad habits included working right through lunch, forgetting about lunch altogether, eating alone every day, and staying inside.

For those who would like to do better, the list of potentially productive activities is long.  Leave your desk, catch up with an old friend, call your parents, network, go for a walk, or get exercise.  For the more ambitious, there is also reading a chapter of a book a day or spending 30 minutes learning a foreign language. 

How vital can lunch be?  Consider this story from a 1998 article in The New York Times by the late Lawrence Van Gelder about a master carpenter named Chuck Green. 

When Mr. Green first started out as a carpenter’s helper, he was the lowest worker in the hierarchy and got all the messy hard work no one would want.  One day on the construction site, when the crew sat down for lunch in their dirty sweaty clothes, everyone else took out a lunch pail with a tuna or ham sandwich.  But Mr. Green took out a lobster, left over from a special meal with visiting in-laws.  He also took out the tools to crack it apart. 

Once the lobster came out, none of his co-workers ate for the next five minutes.  Instead, Mr. Green recalls, “They whooped; they catcalled; they commented . . . For the rest of the day and for a long time afterward, the carpenters would press me to know how much I was really getting paid.”  Presumably, Mr. Green was the lowest paid worker of all, but he said, “No one would believe me.”

And that story embodies all we should seek in a good workday lunch: It was social.  It involved laughter.  It included something delicious (lobster).  And it left a memory for years to come.