The power of lunch breaks

Laura Archer is the author of Gone For Lunch: 52 Things To Do In Your Lunch Break, a warming book that invites readers to use their lunch breaks for themselves and reconnect with what they want and love in life. Laura is an advocate for wellbeing at work, healthy minds and bodies, and happy and fulfilled lives.

Back in 2016 you had the idea to start using your lunch breaks for non‑work related projects, or doing things you were interested in. Can you share some context about your situation at that point; how long had you not been taking lunch breaks for and what prompted the idea to start taking advantage of them?

There are two versions of the story….

To answer how long I hadn’t been taking lunch breaks for first, like a lot of people it might have only been once or twice a month on a sunny day that I’d sit outside in the park and enjoy the experience, but the majority of the time I’d eat a sandwich at my desk. This was partly because I didn’t know what to do with the lunch break – it can feel like an awkward chunk of time to do anything productive with, aside from spending money in the local shops or sitting alone in Pret.

One reason why I started taking my lunch breaks was linked to the attitude of what time is yours and what time is your employer’s. I had just moved jobs and come from a place where the working hours were flexible and employees were trusted to manage their time, so if you’d finished your work by 4 30pm it was fine to leave for the day. In my new job there came a day when I’d finished my work early and I asked my manager if it was ok for me to head off. Her response: “No, you’re contracted to be at your desk from 9am to 5pm.” I resented being made to sit at my desk for an extra half an hour when I had nothing to do, so I looked through my contract to see whether there was some kind of loophole I could work around. One item in there was the mention of lunch breaks: employees are entitled to a 1 hour lunch break and are encouraged to take them. 

This discovery coincided with another reason that pushed me into taking my lunch breaks. I have lots of friends and family in London so many evenings and weekends were taken up by seeing them, leaving me with little time to work on projects that interested me. I felt distressed that my life was galloping past me without me being able to do the things I wanted to do. So I looked at my diary in search of pockets of time I could use and realised that I had up to five hours a week available to me that I wasn’t using. 

Laura with her book Gone For Lunch: 52 Things To Do In Your Lunch Break.

Share some of the most significant things you noticed once you started taking your lunch breaks.

I remember until that point my year felt like a grey blob of work, with occasional brightness of colour thrown in thanks to holidays, Christmas, weekends, and so on. Initially once I started taking my breaks, I noticed that my weeks had more colour to them – I felt like I was accomplishing more compared to when I didn’t take that time. 

Then suddenly the whole year was coloured in my mind and I could distinguish weeks based on the activities I’d done during my lunch breaks – I could look back and remember that was the week I was learning Italian, or that was the week I went to art galleries. The year became more defined and helped me acknowledge how much more I could achieve with just a few hours each week.

About 3 months into taking my lunch breaks, I had a really busy period at work and couldn’t take a break for almost three months. I noticed that I crashed as a result; my mood crashed, my energy crashed, I started drinking a lot more in the evenings because I felt as though I deserved a glass of wine for making it through the day and needed an energy uplift, which meant in the mornings I was tired as the alcohol effected my sleep, so then I’d reach for coffee and maybe a pastry…. Everything went out of kilter.

Now I still don’t take my lunch break everyday – I maybe manage two decent ones a week, but even that makes a difference, because once I reach the end of the week I’m more likely to have a constructive weekend because my week has felt somewhat constructive too, versus when the working week has only involved work and my weekend was spent recuperating and recovering before starting the cycle all over again. 

I used to work in a job where I was so consumed by stress that it became overwhelming – work overtook my whole life and my world became grey. I felt out of control and completely stuck, so I wish I’d discovered your book while I was in that job because I desperately needed help, but didn’t know where to turn! 

In those situations it’s so easy to panic and think about an escape plan: I could quit this job, move location, eat more vegetables and become an artist. Our minds can take us straight to the extremes, but what was nice about taking my lunch breaks was having the realisation that I didn’t need to run away from my life; all I needed to do was go for a 20 minute walk a few times a week, not look at my phone during that time, and simply use that time for myself. That positively impacted my whole life. Plus what I loved about those breaks was that they weren’t taking time away from other areas of my life; my evenings, weekends, and family time were still untouched.   

The majority of the activities in your book are ones you did yourself – which were your most memorable or favourite?

Some of the simplest ones resonated most with me. The first one I did was write a letter to a friend – that was amazing! It doesn’t have to be a letter for you; it could be a diary entry or journaling, but the point is that we don’t often write with our hands anymore. There is something therapeutic about the physical touch of having your hand on paper, or holding a pen. We’re used to typing something quickly and deleting it if we don’t like it – we’re not used to committing to putting something on paper. The whole act of planning the structure of my letter, do I want to include this, at what point should I say that… it was very therapeutic and self-reflective, and the physical act of using my hands to write was brilliant. 

I also enjoyed and still like going for walks to explore the area. Many people may be commuting into the office, doing a day’s work and then commuting home again, but if you can take 10 or 20 minutes to wander out in the middle of the day there’s a good chance you’ll discover some lovely architecture or peaceful parks nearby. Before going out for a walk I often look on Google Maps to see what landmarks are nearby to help me plan my route.

Learning languages also stands out, as gaining a new skill without losing any time is the best feeling in the world – you haven’t had to go to an evening class or do homework, but you’ve simply had a conversation with a colleague or plugged into an audio book over your lunch break.

I never knew how to knit but had always wanted to learn, so myself and some colleagues bought some needles, watched a YouTube tutorial and knitted scarves together over several lunch breaks. Again I liked the physical act of holding wooden needles and feeling the wool move through your hands, as well as having an end product. For many of us our days involve responding to emails, having discussions in meetings or working on documents online, but we rarely produce something tangible.

The last one that stands out is going on dates. I set my dating app radius to 1 mile and went on a few lunch time coffee breaks, which worked really well because not only was it exciting, as there was a fear I might be spotted on a date by a colleague, but for first dates in particular the time restriction was useful because I could confidently decide whether I wanted to see that person again or not.

The book has a real variety of ideas so it’s nice that people can try out lots of different things, then keep coming back to the ones that appeal to them the most. 

Laura with Bruce Daisley, host of the Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat podcast and author of The Joy of Work. Laura spent one lunch break recording an episode for Bruce’s podcast.

The thing that I love about those examples is that they require taking your attention away from work and onto the activity at hand, which can surely only be helpful in restoring your energy levels so that you can return to work feeling replenished.

I have an unscientific theory about this – if you think about the areas of your brain that you might be using at work, such as the analytical, statistical, logical or organisational parts of your brain, there will be other areas that don’t get used at all, such as the creative or dream-like parts. When you do take a break to do something more visual, non-linear, dream-like or creative, you’re taking energy away from your work-dependent neurons and giving them a break so that they don’t burn out. In the meantime you’re firing up another part of your brain so that when you’re ready to return to your work, those crucial parts are ready to go again. However if you don’t allow them to rest but you continuously use those parts of your brain all day, they’ll eventually get tired and may not work as efficiently. 

We don’t do anything else consistently for 8 hours at a time; you couldn’t watch a play or a film for that long without getting tired, so why do we think it’s sustainable to work continuously for 8+ hours?

We’ve started covering the benefits of taking a lunch break – what are some of the other benefits? 

Firstly I think the physical and mental benefits are clear, as consistently not taking breaks is going to knock onto the rest of your week.

Secondly research has proven that you are far more productive in the afternoon if you have taken a break. In fact a few days ago I didn’t take a lunch break and I barely did any work for the rest of the day, which completely contrasted to my productivity levels yesterday when I took a full hour over lunch and then during the afternoon got so much done.

An increase in job satisfaction is another benefit. I used to spend my lunch breaks looking on job boards for other roles, or on Airbnb or Skyscanner fantasising about dream holidays, but once I started taking my lunch breaks I felt so grateful to be in a role that allowed me that option, and using that time to do things that interested me helped improve my attitude towards my colleagues and my manager. I also felt like I was a better person in general because I was more relaxed and less stressed, which ultimately made me a better employee and colleague. 

Some people work in high-stress and high-powered jobs who won’t feel that they have time to take a lunch break. What advice would you give to them?

I think everyone could relate to this to some degree, as we will have all experienced busy periods where it’s difficult to get away from our desk. I suggest that you don’t think about taking a full lunch break, but instead grab short bursts of time where you can switch off from the task at hand – even if it’s a maximum of 10 minutes several times a day, and not necessarily during the lunch period. 

You could plug in your headphones and listen to your favourite song, read a chapter or two of your book, or step outside just to take some deep breaths. For some people they may be able to use their commute time differently, or others would be happier getting up 10 minutes earlier and putting that time towards something that matters to them.

The whole idea is to pull yourself out of your work, as your brain is like a muscle that needs rest, then return to work feeling more refreshed. 

I love this statistic you’ve shared: over the course of a year your lunch breaks add up to around 6-7 weeks of annual leave.

Yes, that’s based on an hour-long lunch break over a 40-hour working week. Just imagine if someone handed you 6 weeks of annual leave, what would you do with that time? You might write a book, learn a language, train for a race… all you need to do is break that big goal down into small achievable chunks that you can manage within your lunch breaks. 

And if you want to be mercenary about it, that amount of time equates to over a month’s worth of salary that’s not going into your bank account, which your employer is pocketing for free.

I moved to Switzerland for work last year and one of the things they do well here is the lunch break. At 12pm there’s a mass exodus where people leave their desks to share lunch together, or get outside to exercise and it’s extremely unusual to see someone working through their break. Do you know which other countries are encouraging employees to take regular breaks?

It’s difficult to know which countries or companies specifically promote lunch breaks as that data is hard to find, but we do know that some companies offer more flexible hours than others. Scandinavian countries typically feature highly on rankings to do with employee wellbeing, happiness, and satisfaction at work, so that must link in. 

My book has been translated into German and Taiwanese, so there’s clearly a market for it in those countries.

Interestingly, I have a friend who works for a large international bank in London, and she’s noticed that over lunch all her German colleagues disappear, but all the English employees stay at their desk – so there’s clearly a difference in attitude towards lunch breaks depending on your nationality. Sometimes we are quick to think of company-wide policies but actually, is the reluctance to take lunch breaks related to the culture within our team or department, or even something we’ve inherited within our nationality?   

Thinking about working standards we’ve inherited, this links to the topic of remote working and no longer having a need to work from a desk in the company’s office. The 9-5 structure links back to our industrial roots, when people were required to work in factories in those hours, otherwise they would break the production line and lose the company money. This mentality still seems to exist today where some companies think that if we’re not working at our desks, we’ll lose them money. Yet in some cases if we’re not at our desk we may have the freedom to think about an idea that could propel the company forward, for example. It’s far more likely that employees will feel more creative when they’re not restricted to being in a certain place within a specified time frame. Perhaps the UK is still clinging onto our industrial history and some companies need to update the expectations they have of workers. 

The Letter Writing Challenge was the first activity Laura completed during her lunch breaks.

Thinking about flexible working, there’s an increase in the number of niche job boards out there who are advertising jobs with flexible hours, and the flexible conversation seems to be spreading more generally.

I believe that, by law, every employer in the UK now has to provide the opportunity to discuss flexible working with any employee who requests it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to meet a person’s needs – so if you’re applying for a job that advertises flexible working, make sure that conversation is had before anything gets signed!  

Also, with more women in the workplace and in leadership roles, and men increasingly sharing the childcare demands, the 9–5 routine may not work for as many people as it previously has, so that’s likely another reason for the increased discussion about flexible working. In my previous job, where we had flexi-hours, the majority of my colleagues who had children worked 8am–4pm, while millennials like me usually opted for 10am–6pm, so it worked really well for everyone and meant that actually the office was ‘manned’ from 8am–6pm, rather than the standard 9am–5pm, so the company benefitted too. I hope this becomes the status quo, as we should all be trusted to know how and when we work best. 

Finally, what are you excited about in the coming months?

There’s talk about a second book at the moment, which will either come out in December 2020 or January 2021, so watch this space!

Laura with her book Gone For Lunch: 52 Things To Do In Your Lunch Break.

Learn more about Laura on her website or follow her on Instagram.
Instagram: @larcher.time

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