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 69.

    Completely agree. My company puts out a lot of memos on "work/life balance" but its all rubbish. Its more like "have a work life balance as long as we dont need you, if something goes wrong then because we reduced headcount and theres no one else left, you stay all night to sort it out"

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Back in the 1970s as a student apprentice I can remember going to the pub with the others in my office for lunch and beer, 4-pints occasionally. Not much work got done in the afternoon after that.

    How times have changed since then...

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    50. Nonie Westbourne
    That's only if you've signed up to it. I haven't and nor have any of my colleagues as we don't want to limit our hours to 35pw like the lazy French. We want to be successful which means working damn hard and if that means going without a lunch break then so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    The more to the right all the major parties have got the more authoritarian and bullying businesses and managers have become. Like it or lump it is not an efficient personnel management system but with everyone so normalised to our far right society now most people can't even see it. The Germans have longer holidays and work shorter hours than us - so how come they are such an economic powerhouse?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    how do you make it 'mandatory' - in my office your 'not allowed' to work more than 6 hours without a 30min break&the clocking system makes you clock out for an unpaid 30min or but people still work through lunch by clocking out&carrying on working especially if you have a full day meeting - short of kicking everyone out the office and confiscating their blackberry and laptop its not possible

  • Comment number 64.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I believe having some form of lunch break makes people more productive. I have worked in places where it was compulsory in shifts (newspaper classified advertising department for instance "Are you on the 12 oclock shift today Maureen?") and also in places where it would be almost like gunslingers waiting for the other person to make the next move i.e. "Just dashing out to get a sandwich"....

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    My wife works as a part time civil servant. She can do this as she's able to take the kids to school, go to work, put in the hours needed then leave and pick the kids up again. If she were forced to take lunch, either she'd have to give up work or leave the kids to fend for themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Skipping lunch is always a good way of getting brownie points, leading to promotion, or at the very least protection should redundancies be threatened.

    It's so easy to look good if you stay munching a banana at your desk, while everyone else has buggered off to the pub or cafe.

    I'm not doing it for my workplace - I'm doing it for me. Unless I fancy my boss, in which case it's a bit of both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    37 Typical English No8
    I like the majority would certainly agree,but try telling that to the people in fear of loosing their job,as how many companies walk the talk in reality,yes sounds good on internal memos and to attract key staff and even when your time is measured and you hit a number of hours to be told by a manager you must work less,yea really,you just take it home in order to hit targets

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    This is a good idea in my opinion, but this article seems to be written from the perspective of a person in a certain type of job - an office worker. When I worked in retail during uni (for a well-known camera retailer), I was usually lucky if I GOT a lunch break at all, due to the hideously understaffed shop. Not all firms are like this, but the problem goes far beyond the office environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    20 years ago I worked in Switzerland. We had a compulsory lunch break which the clocking in machines would calculate and deduct from your daily hours if you clocked back in too early. We also had a compulsory 15 minute coffee break at 9.00am and 3.00pm. A lot of cross department discussions happened during the coffee breaks and they were very productive, especially building trust and rapport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I'd prefer to skip lunch and go home early

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    For decades Trades Unions fought for employees' rights and working conditions, but then along came Mrs Thatcher and swept them all away. She successfully, but regrettably, gave Unions a bad name and tarred all union members with the same brush. Sorry folks! You're on your own now. The majority of employers couldn't care less about your welfare, only their fat profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I quoted the Working Time Directive to my line manager and he seemed to think that 'welcome to the real world' justifed working through lunch coming in early, staying late. It is not well known and is not respected because noone dares push it if they want the slim chance of promotion. Ofcourse the old school tie brigade go out for long 'working lunches' because they get promotion by other means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    When I ran a large team I banned sandwiches at the desk. People must have a proper break to eat and unwind. Ironically, if this was mandatory, perhaps more people would do some shopping in their lunch break and give a boost to the retailers instead of pressure to open on Sundays?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I eat my lunch sandwich at my desk so I can leave earlier in the afternoon.... I get to the office by 8.30am and usually leave around 4pm or earlier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I notice that so many posters here are saying they never have time to stop for lunch - how come you have time to read the news online and leave comments?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.


    Here in France it is manditory...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.


    True. When I visited a French company recently I enjoyed the best business lunch I had ever had. Not like the limp sandwich at my desk which is all I usually have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    They ARE mandatory already. Doesn't anyone know their employment law any more? Look up the Working Time Directive.


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