Should lunch breaks be mandatory?
- 7 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
People are always being told that lunch is under threat from workaholism, but would a compulsory long break actually mean we achieved more? Former Wall Street trader Frank Partnoy thinks so.
Most of us rush through lunch. We might have a sandwich at our desk or grab a quick salad with a colleague. Or perhaps we skip lunch altogether. After all, breakfast is widely regarded as the most important meal of the day. Dinner is often the most enjoyable. Lunch gets short shrift.
Lunch also has suffered from the crush of technology. Email, social media, and 24-hour news all eat away at lunch. Even when we have lunch alone, we rarely spend the whole time quietly reading or thinking. We are more connected to our hand-held electronic devices than our own thoughts.
Given the fast pace of modern life, it is worth considering whether employers should require a substantial lunch break.
Or, if a mandatory lunch seems too draconian, perhaps employers could give workers incentives to take time off for lunch, just as in some countries they subsidise or reward regular visits to the gym or a physician. Would we benefit from a long intraday pause?
One obvious reason to do lunch is to slow down and gain some perspective. If we burrow into work, and don't come up for air during the day, we will have a hard time thinking strategically or putting our daily tasks into broader context.
By taking a lunch break, we can think outside the box. In the interviews I conducted for my book, I was struck by how many senior leaders stressed the importance of strategic "downtime" - lunch or some other block of an hour or more per day - to break up their thinking and spur them to be more strategic.
Where we have lunch can be almost as important as whether we have it. If we sit down at a real restaurant and take time to chat leisurely with colleagues, we are more likely to slow down than if we dash to a fast food chain. In fact, a fast food lunch can be more harmful than no lunch at all.
The dangers of fast food are deeper than caloric ingredients and unhealthy food preparation. Recent studies have shown that fast food also has pernicious effects on how we think. For example, Sanford DeVoe, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, has shown that merely being exposed to a fast food logo speeds up our already-fast snap reactions.
Urban fast food locations are packed at lunchtime. In the suburbs, the drive-thrus are lined with cars. People who eat at fast food restaurants might think, as the old McDonald's slogan suggested, that they deserve a break. However, they aren't getting one.
When people do lunch quickly, they often feel forced to choose fast food. But that kind of lunch experience doesn't slow us down. Instead, it speeds us up.
A mandatory break would be especially helpful for people who trade stocks during their lunch break. When I worked in Morgan Stanley's derivatives group in Tokyo during the 1990s, there was a mandatory halt to trading every day for 90 minutes during lunch.
I was struck by the positive impact of the break on the tempo of trading. The pause led to more rational thinking about the trading day and often helped cooler heads prevail during times of stress. We read. We contemplated strategy. Sometimes we even ate.
Today, many individuals trade too much. A mandatory break might help wean day traders off the addiction of constant trading. Unfortunately, the trend is toward more trading, not less.
Historically, stock exchanges in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Singapore recognised the benefits of a lunch break. But now the Asian markets are moving toward the Western model of continuous trading, and shortening their lunch breaks.
A long, mandatory lunch would also benefit another important group - single people. It would free up time for them to do something people don't do nearly as well during the evening - go on a date.
Dinner is a risky proposition for a date, especially a first one. It almost always lasts too long. If the date goes poorly, both people want to leave after an hour, but find it awkward to do so. And even dinner dates that go well probably should end sooner than they do. There is plenty of time for a second date.
The two factors that matter most at the early stages of a relationship are chemistry and compatibility. You can get a sense of those during an hour-long lunch, but not based on a glance. Also, there's a hard stop so both people know the date is going to end.
Although a mandatory lunch could generate substantial benefits, we are unlikely to do it on our own. When we have the choice, many of us see the salient costs of a leisurely lunch, but not the benefits.
To encourage people to enjoy the benefits of lunch, we need to change the lunch default rule with the kind of "libertarian paternalism" advocated by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. Just as they would impose a default rule requiring people to save money, while permitting them to "opt out," employers could do the same for lunch. People could skip lunch if they wanted, but they would have to take some action - fill out a form, or log on to a website.
Economic growth was supposed to make us better off by creating more opportunities for leisure. Yet people feel they are working harder than ever. A mandatory break might help reverse this trend.
And it wouldn't necessarily create an unproductive 90-minute block. Employers could ensure someone is on staff at all times by staggering lunch periods (11:30-13:00; 1200-13:30 and 12:30-14:00), like schools do.
Finally, lunch breaks could create new opportunities for part-time work by institutionalising two half-time shifts - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Parents with newborns might choose to work just one of those times. It might become easier and more acceptable to become a halftime employee if there were a clean, natural split between morning and afternoon.
If our leaders want to improve economic growth and productivity, they could start by experimenting with a policy tool that is simpler than fiscal spending and less risky than monetary stimulus. How about lunch?