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 369.

    For goodness bloody sake, why not just chain workers to their posts like dogs and not feed them at all then hopefully just as happened in the concentration camps of WW2 they will just die to be replaced by others to have the same done to them, anyone who thinks a worker should not have an hours rest, for a lunch break midday is just a useless jobsworth, not worth of being a member of human race

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    Not more red tape!! If a lunch break of X mins is profitable to a company, let that company do it, and if it is not profitable to another company let that company not do it! Even within a company, different people might work best under different conditions. Why should we be compelled to standardise everyone's work patterns?

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    I find it fascinating that almost all of the 350+ posters on this topic, including the self-righteous, "I work very hard" brigade and the, "people should work a full day" gang have posted their comments by taking un unpaid break from their work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    Even when I do have a designated lunch break I never usually eat lunch, but use the time to do other things. When I'm not at work, I rarely have lunch, unless my family are having theirs. I've usually got so many things to do that eating gets left out. Do I miss it? No!

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    I definitely work better in the afternoon if I've had a proper lunch break. Breaking the train of thought to have lunch often leads to me finding a solution to what has seemed an impossible problem.

    Fast pace days produce more, but more of it is wrong and needs to be redone. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare...

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    What an absolute load of hogwash. Working 7 days a week can make you ill. Can you work and get the same production in 5 days instead of us having to pay you overtime for the other two? Of cause thats better for your health isn`t it? It`s all down to money not intellectual know it alls who spend most of the time thinking instead of grafting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    @ 206.Colin100 - I feel a duty to do many things in life but working for free isn't one of them. I have a duty to work hard when I'm being paid to do a job but I have a right to be paid well (and have a lunch break) when I work hard for somebody.

    We've not done too bad for ourselves for "the laziest people in Europe" I think you'll agree!

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    What happened to our free society? Are we kids who have to follow decisions by adults now? Mandatory extended breaks will sometimes cause important jobs not to get completed and reduce GDP and dilute the effectiveness of every mile and minute spent travelling to work locations even is already terrible with many people spending many hours travelling as stamp duty prevents moving near

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Employees abuse liquor, narcotics, and food binge over an extended lunch break. Fast pace days produce more work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    I'm 19 and have been working for 3 years, the problem isn't the length of breaks it's the ability of the staff. So far everyone is incapable of doing their basic duties and only 5 staff from 32 are actually able to do their job. People go to 'work' and basically steal their salary, too much moaning and not enough work!

    Rules decided my pencil pushers that don't do the job doesn't help either!

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    358: Well, what else have we got to work for? Generation Jammy and The Landlords have the property market so sewn up so I can't even hope for a 2 bed flat, let alone an actual, freehold house! I'll take my time back, thank you very much, as my £ is now worth pretty much nothing useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    It seems to me that the biggest problem here is not the lunch break itself but the amount of working hours for such little reward.

    I think the younger generation are starting to care less about money and more about quality of life. You old guys are a great inspiration to us all, go ahead and run yourselves into an early grave and fight for more money, we'll fight for a better life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    People should get at least 30 minutes for lunch, and at least two 15-minute breaks in between, to be used as they wish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    I used to own a pub where 4 young ladies came in every day - sat with a half pint of (diet) coke and bowl of soup each - all in silence constantly texting for the whole of their lunch break. Then back to work - all with hardly a word! That was a lunch break apparently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    This is fine in theory. However, given that I really don't want to be in the office an hour later in the evening and I don't get a reduced workload because I'm taking my lunch hour, its not going to happen any time soon. My working week is long enough already thanks, I'd quite like to see my children before they go to bed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    Blimey who get 90 minutes break these day?? like to know where defo not in retail. get an hour for doing 8hr 5 min shift. Only get 90 min break when doing 11 hours or more. Even then don't take it all. Our life style going backward as rather finish the job then a new job is already on that list!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    For what its worth, we spent an hour out the office today in the sunshine and we do every sunny day. Only doctors have jobs important enough to stress over and miss out on leisure time. Anyone else working themselves to the bone for someone else profits needs to think about their situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    I find it strange how most office workers on here only get a 30 minute lunch or 45mins unpaid and enter or leave bang on time etc.
    I work just under 8 hours a day.. sometimes 12 hours if I feel like doing overtime. An 8 hour day will get me a 1hour break.. usually broken down into a 40minute and 20 minute break... but i tend to use the 20min break at the end so leave early. Thank god for union!

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    The United Kingdom was more productive when we had hour lunch brakes that was because peoples energy had time to recover

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.


    I completely agree - I don't allow my staff breaks of any kind. If they want food and drink they are allowed to have an intravenous drip which can be attached to the back of the specially designed chair.

    Toilet breaks are also facilitated via the use of same said chair.


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