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 49.

    Mix it up a bit in my view. Some days it's sandwich at the desk, others it's a lunch with colleagues and sometimes it's a lunch with friends. Although we rarely have alcohol as long boozy lunches are a thing of the past. Variety is.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    If we are contracted to work with an hour/half hour break, then that is what we should take

    Anything else is exploitation - getting more work out of us for no extra pay

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    When I used to work as a university "professor" we had a faculty club where people from a wide variety of disciplines met together over lunch and discussed anything from world and university affairs to how to fix a hole in the wall. This was a very valuable break. Sadly the support for this institution waned and it closed down shortly before I retired. Business values replacing scholarship?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Oh dear, we'll asked if pay is necessary next by this ultra-right wing government - oh sorry they've already decided that it isn't - I forgot about 'Workfare'

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    My work is great, we have lunch 12-2 and are allowed an hour between these times, most people in my department eat a sandwich at their desk (working) at 12, then go out 1-2, its perfect!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    35.yair - "My employer takes 45 minutes out of my salary every day. To comply with the working time directive. Yet I never get a lunch break. I believe a mandatory lunch break would protect exploited workers."

    Sounds like your boss is taking the michael.....speak to CAB & think about taking them to an empoyment tribunal as they are exploiting you for their own profit.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    edcee ........In france you are all less tired because you all take 3 month long holidays and work about 20 hours a week if you're pushing it. I'm not knocking it though. It sounds like heaven.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I once worked in an office where every 2 hours your computer would be locked for 10 minutes or until you solved a sudoku puzzle that came on screen. It was a great way to get your brain doing something different for 10 minutes or so and when you got back to work you looked at it with fresh eyes weather you had a cuppa or did the puzzle. I thought it was great.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Where I work (university) working lunches are approved and breaks, usually taken by women to do shopping or sort out domestic matters are seen as a sign of less commitment. Another way of ensuring women with children struggle to be promoted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Yes the lunch break should be mandatory, otherwise the employee

    is vunerable to exploitation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I always used to work hrough my lunch, or have it at my desk, on the basis I could leave earlier. Annoyingly, that early out hardly ever happened. On the other hand, now im working throuhg my redundancy I take 1 to 2 hrs lunch away from my desk and leave early!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Most employers would give to one hand and take away from the other. If they gave you a 90 minute break you'd lose your coffee breaks during the day (assuming you even get those), no matter how hard or how long you work during the day.

    Personally, as an "office worker" I've never seen the need for long lunch breaks unless leaving the office with colleagues for a meal, I value coffee breaks more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    What I don't understand (especially where I work) are the people who make the point of coming in uber early, working flat out all day, not having a lunch break, and then playing 'who leaves the latest wins'. For me it's get into the office at 8:59:59 and leave at 5:00:01. Working yourself into the ground ruins your free time, i work to live, not live to work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Lung is overrated, I only eat one meal a day (in the evening) and have no heath or other problems

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    My employer takes 45 minutes out of my salary every day. To comply with the working time directive. Yet I never get a lunch break. I believe a mandatory lunch break would protect exploited workers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    My school has a 25 minute lunch period for staff and students. For staff, this means that often we don't get to eat at all. By the time you've cleared the classroom, spent 5 minutes talking to a pupil who has an issue, popped to the loo, set up for the next lesson... you're lucky if you've managed enough time to take a few bites of a sandwich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    It's all a lot easier said than done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I always preferred working through my lunch and eating at my desk.

    I kept at while I ate and never slowed down for lunch. And nobody complained if I took one or two cigarette breaks during the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Forward thinking companies, as in the ones thar are the most efficient, already make sure this happens because they can see that it makes their staff more productive in the afternoons if they aren't completely wiped by lunch time......

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    are we talking about lunch or lunch break? for me it's either lunch or dinner,,, the food we take is so rich on calories that you can't possibly enjoy the two without putting on weight. even soup these days are thickened with cream.
    Lunch break now is an opportunity for workers to do whatever they like,, no one wants his days at work to look the same.


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