Should lunch breaks be mandatory?

Woman eating noodles at her desk

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?

About the author

Frank Partnoy

Former Wall Street trader Frank Partnoy is a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego and author of WAIT: The Useful Art of Procrastination

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.

Defining terms

  • The Oxford English Dictionary records lunch to mean midday meal as first appearing in about 1829, from "when it was regarded either as a vulgarism or as a fashionable affectation"
  • But "lunch" was first recorded at end of the 16th Century to denote a piece or hunk of food
  • And as an abbreviation of "luncheon", "lunch" was recorded from 1786, according to Online Etymology Dictionary

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.

Woman eating food at her desk Crying inside?

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.

Lunch box

A number of high-profile names have mused about the midday meal...

"Lunch is for wimps" - Gordon Gekko, character in 1987 film Wall Street

"There's no such thing as a free lunch" - popularised by Milton Friedman, economist

"Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch" - Orson Welles, actor and director

"A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will's freedom after it" - Aldous Huxley, author

"I haven't trusted polls since I read that 62% of women had affairs during their lunch hour. I've never met a woman in my life who would give up lunch for sex" - Erma Bombeck, journalist

"Office hours are from 12 to 1, with an hour off for lunch" - George S Kaufman, playwright

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?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Here in France it is manditory. Everything shuts, except restaurants, from 12 til 2pm Monday to Friday even supermarkets. The workers seem to be less tired at the end of the day as most take at least an hour for a 3 course lunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Teachers are generally lucky to get a lunch break. By the time you've dealt with behaviour issues, done duties or lunchtime clubs, set things up for your lessons in the afternoon, etc, it's usually a case of wolfing down a sandwich wherever you can. I guess that's par for the course though, we do get 12 weeks holiday a year to make up for it.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I work in a supermarket. Years ago, 1 hour breaks used to be the norm. Now supermarket chains have found they make more money by forcing people to eat meals in 1/2 including time to travel to the canteen and toilet breaks. Managers and section leaders have thier phones on them to take calls from the shopfloor in spite of any law to contrary. If challenged they say its the only way to move forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I used to regularly skip lunch when I worked for a busy publishing company. I ended up with stomach problems - possibly a combination of stress, caffeine, and working on an empty stomach. I'd never risk my health again for an employer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    My employer is about one step away from installing IV drips and catheters at our desks so we don've have to move. There's nowhere to eat lunch except your desk so you're forced into it. It's a pretty sad state of affairs but most employers just want to work you until you drop these days. Even those who claim to care about their staff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Lunch breaks taken at desks browsing on line often bleed into normal working hours and work bleeds into the lunchtime. Overall effect is of no mental or physical break. If folk are office based and are paid to do a job i.e. not by the hour, then so long as they do the job efficiently let them organise their time within core constraints. Some days long lunch and exercise, some days working lunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Most of the time I'm working from home, consequently I find myself talking a walk instead of lunching and having a slightly earlier evening meal instead. My waste line is all the better for it.

    When working in an office there's a feeling I must lunch, how can everyone else be wrong? But really there's no need if you're working in an office. A good breakfast and evening meal is all you need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This is rather topical today being Friday and all that, half my office and indeed most of the City of London will be in the boozer from 13:00-16:00 so if anything 90 minutes is too short a break! You would barely have time to get wobbly at the rate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    That's great. But aside from the fact there's nowhere to go on my lunch - our office is a converted barn in the middle of the countryside, with no staff room - as a small customer service business we just do not have the staff or time to give everyone 90 minutes. 2 staff currently get 60minutes (12:30-1:30 & 14:00-15:00) - the rest of us have to cover for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Sadly even the French are cutting back on the time spent on lunch. A long lunch break is so much more civilised than a snatched sandwich at your desk.
    And I love those old sitcoms, like Butterflies, where they come home daily to lunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I do think a lunch break of at least 40 minutes is a good idea, but making it mandatory I'm not sure about. When I worked it was a 9 to 5 job with an hour for lunch included. Most times that was fine, but occasionally due to deadlines working through lunch helped to keep things on course. I think attitudes need to be changed back to having a mid-day break instead of constant work for 8 hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    On the road, breaks should be mandatory. I frequently end up driving around all day, delivering stuff, with no time for a break. I get a good talking to by management if I'm late. Their timing software doesn't allow for traffic hold ups etc. Tachographs should be fitted to all delivery vehicles, big or small, to check on this. Office wise, more fool them. It's not as if they have to be there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Valid article. If I look around my office now I know that at least 80%o f us eat lunch at our desk - or miss it altogether if we have meetings. It makes the day longer - and maybe with a "compulsory" rule in place perhaps we would all be more motivated/enthused/productive!

    I am all for it - but will it last, I don't think so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I have a 2 hour commute each way and work through lunch (eating at my desk with one eye on my emails) so I can get my work done, leave early and get home in time to read my toddler his bedtime story. You have to choose what's important. Compulsory 90 minutes away from my desk each day for me would be a nightmare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    You've got to make time during the day to give yourself little breaks. Right now for example i'm typing this at my desk, pretending to be busy. Unless someone is stood right behind me, it just sounds like im tapping away at my keyboard sending out another email. I think 'flexi' time should be used by more companies, give the workforce a bit of control over their hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    No, I recently left a job where I was arriving at work at 8am and leaving 6pm earliest. Due to my workload, my lunch breaks rarely exceeded 20 minutes, but my employer was quite happy to deduct an hours pay daily due to my mandatory "lunchbreak". Offer the option, but don't allow employers to deduct pay for those who decline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I work flexi time and regardless of taking a lunch break or not, they 'dock' me 30 minutes - to encourage me to have a lunch break. The fact I sit at my desk and read the online papers means that if someone asks a question or needs help I'm there. I don't get my time back, we are used to dealing with things as they come up. But the person interrupting always says "oh sorry but can you just.."

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    More time spent at lunch would only mean having to stay at work later into the evening. I currently work 8am to 4pm with a 30 minute lunch break. Taking 90 minutes for lunch would mean my staying at the office for an extra hour. I would be extremely unhappy at being forced to do this. I prefer to get my working day over and done with in order to have time for myself at the end of the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    These articles which claim to know what is best for the metabolism of all 8 billion people on this planet are hilarious in their arrogance! Maybe these writers think we are manufactured identical robots?

    Some of us need regular long lunch breaks, some of us prefer to do long shifts punctuated by the odd tea break and most of us tend to do a mixture of both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Stuff a compulsory lunch hour - I'd far rather skip lunch altogether and get home earlier to enjoy life with my family - preferably over a nicely cooked meal which we all appreciate.


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