The lunch break is supposed to be an essential, and legally mandated, aspect of every worker’s day. We all need some time to recharge, eat something, and take a breath, but many employees end up skipping their lunch breaks more often than not. Some will say they’re just too busy to leave their desk, while others may admit to their co-workers that they feel guilty about taking a break during peak business hours.
For those of us who cherish each minute of our lunch breaks, the idea of skipping lunch is puzzling. Why would anyone refuse to afford themselves a few minutes off? Researchers from Staffordshire University investigated what compels so many people to skip their lunch breaks, and came to several fascinating conclusions.
“The legally required minimum time for a lunch break at work is 20 minutes (in the UK), however, there is a growing trend nationally for large numbers of people not to take breaks at work, with surveys reporting that between 66% and 82% of workers don’t always take their breaks,” comments lead study author Dr. Mike Oliver in a university release. “So, how have we got to the point where some people feel guilty about taking their legally allowable break? We were curious to look at the psychological and social behaviors of office workers to understand the enablers and barriers.”
While this research was performed in the United Kingdom, its findings certainly apply to the United States as well. It’s well established that the US perpetuates a “work first” culture that preaches dedication to one’s employer over pretty much everything else in life.
Moreover, in light of recent global developments and millions now working from home, the study’s author says it’s likely that many employees are now finding it even more difficult to separate work from other aspects of their lives and take a break during the workday.
“We found that one of the best ways to make sure that you take breaks is to take them with your work colleagues or to be encouraged to take them by your boss. If they are not physically near you, we may find it harder to act on these social prompts,” Dr. Oliver explains about the possible repercussions of COVID-19.
Researchers surveyed a group of office workers employed by a large, unnamed company regarding their lunch break habits. Participating employees ranged from entry-level to managerial positions.
An extensive analysis of those responses revealed five main themes or factors that influence people’s lunch break habits:
First of all, there isn’t one driving cause that makes people skip their lunch break. It’s always a mixture of multiple reasons, perceptions, and justifications.
We’re heavily influenced by our co-workers and the people around us; if lots of other people in the office aren’t taking their lunch break, you’re more likely to skip lunch yourself. The same holds true on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. If no one in an office ever skips lunch, it’s very unlikely a single employee would choose to do so.
When our schedules are full and the work is piling up, many people will choose to skip their lunch break if given the choice. In these scenarios, work “wins” over enjoying a break.
Some people and workers are just naturally inclined to feel guilty about taking a break at work. Of course, many other people don’t feel guilty at all about it. This factor comes down to individual personality.
Some employees feel as though they are “fair game” when it comes to work-related matters if they stay at their desks during their lunch break. This can have a few different effects; many may purposely leave their desk to avoid any annoyances during their break, while others may decide to just keep working since they’re still at their desk anyway.
“This paper highlights the complex relationships that people have with taking breaks, with others, and with their physical environment. Some participants did recognize the importance of taking a break in the middle of the day, but others appeared to convince themselves that by doing a less intense work activity, such as responding to emails, whilst eating their lunch at their desk, would actually be taking a break,” notes Dr. Oliver.
Countless people all over the world tend to define themselves by their job and career. Building a successful career is an important part of life, but regularly sacrificing one’s lunch breaks isn’t a healthy way to get ahead in the corporate world. Go ahead and take an hour off, your mind and body will thank you.
“The greater importance that people appear to be placing on completing their work over the time they give themselves for breaks, or simply the sheer volume and pressure of work, may go some way to explaining this pattern of behavior,” he concludes. “There is mounting concern about the amount of time people spend sitting down at work and not being physically active, so it is really important that people don’t put work ahead of breaks and their own physical and psychological health.”
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Psychology and Health.
John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.