On a perfect spring day last week, I closed my laptop around noon, grabbed my Tupperware lunch, and beelined for the elevator. The moment I stepped outside of the office, my shoulders relaxed, moving a half-inch away from my ears, where they ought to be. I found a bench to sit on that provided me with optimal sun exposure and people-watching possibilities. As I ate, I overheard corny jokes and thought-provoking conversations — no mention of “going public,” “objective key results,” or any of the tech terms I’m accustomed to overhearing at my desk. After an hour of basking in humanity, I walked back to the office, refreshed.
When I returned to work, a colleague rushed over to me. “Did you get to go outside?” she asked, looking a little desperate. “How was it?”
“It’s really nice out!” I replied, wishing I could shut her MacBook and gently push her towards the elevator. “You should enjoy it while it lasts!”
She shuddered. “I just have so much work to do….”
While I savored my sunny midday break, it wasn’t unusual for me. I come from a line of people who believe in taking lunch. My dad is an accountant and, whether it’s tax season or not, he physically removes himself from his desk to enjoy a sandwich over the daily paper. My mom was a public school teacher, and even she found some time to close her classroom door for a little midday relaxation. Which is to say, putting the lunchtime oxygen mask on myself first is in my blood. Rain or shine, I give myself the time to think, breathe and eat to the sounds of birds chirping (or more likely, cars honking or street vendors yelling).
But I’m often one of the only people at my company to do it — and this has been the case at every office I’ve worked in for the last 10 years.
What happened to the lunch hour? It’s been a hot topic of debate for at least the last decade. According to 2018 research, over half of Americans feel unable to take a full lunch break. And per a recent Take Back The Lunch Break survey, 20 percent of North American workers worry their bosses will think they’re not hard working if they take regular lunch breaks. But the survey also found that employees who take regular lunch breaks are more engaged in the workplace, so while a quarter of Americans associate taking lunch with working less hard, the opposite is true. This probably explains the side-eye I get from colleagues when I shut my laptop at noon: Even if they’d like to join me, breaking the social contract of abstaining from self-care during work hours is perceived as risky.
“[T]here’s just this demand to be forever available,” says Professor Kimberly Elsbach on NPR’s Here And Now episode on the topic, “so people are reluctant to leave their desk in case they miss something, and so people are eating at their desk — if they’re eating at all — and are just there for longer periods of time.” I’ve seen this firsthand: the project manager who is praised for solving a problem in the wee hours of the morning; the designer who still answers Slack messages while on vacation. This razor-sharp focus on output favors our productivity over our own humanity. All of it chips away at our personal time — including lunch.
Which is why, in my view, taking a lunch break has become nothing short of an act of resistance — one that is always worth the side eye. By taking time away from my spreadsheets and blank artboards, I usually return to them with a fresh perspective on how to solve problems. When I was going through a breakup, I remember telling myself, Just make it to lunch, then you can cry in your parked car all you want. Had I worked through lunch like most of my colleagues, I would have missed valuable time to express and process my feelings.
I’ve worked in plenty of offices where I’ve been tempted to blend in — to nibble on my cold lunch salad while clicking through Google Drive. And when it’s rainy or my to-do list is long or I’m just dead tired, it’s hard to resist the temptation to stay put. To design a lunch plan that requires the least amount of time and effort. But it’s those moments, I’ve realized, when I need a lunch break the most. When it’s raining, I can crack open a book in the office or a nearby cafe and get lost for a while. When I have too much to do, a few moments to myself reminds me who I am and where to harness the energy to tackle the next challenge. When I’m exhausted, a thoughtful walk down the block can restore my body and clear my mind far better than a cup of coffee.
Carving out offline time every day can be a challenge in its own right — especially when the pressure to produce is at a cacophonous high. But it’s one I’ve found consistently worth the trouble. I’ve never missed a deadline or life-altering event because I was at lunch, and the quality of my work is better when I take one. But maybe more importantly, regularly pausing midday sustains me physically, mentally and emotionally. And what’s more important than that?
Feature image by Edith Young.