Lunch hours, weekends and holidays are sacred times that should be used to switch off completely. So why do some of us find it so difficult to take a work break? 

The French and Spanish do it every day for around two hours, usually with wine. The Germans do it communally. In some parts of Sweden, they do it with a DJ. I’m talking about taking lunch breaks out of the office, something that is apparently (literally) a foreign concept to South Africans. Most of us, myself included, eat lunch at our desks daily.

Common reasons for this include: ‘I have too much work to do’, ‘I need to finish this spreadsheet’ and ‘I just want to clear my inbox’ – all noble but inexcusable reasons to stay at your desk.

According to Richard Denniss, a researcher from The Australia Institute, company culture often contributes to employees spending lunch at their desks. ‘In many workplaces, being seen sitting at your desk has become an important indicator of your commitment to your job,’ he says. ‘But it’s quite clear that people working in that way are not at their most productive. They’re not at their most creative. They’re not at their most communicative. And in the long run, the best staff will leave. It’s a short-term indicator of a productive workplace, to confuse not taking lunch with everything going well.’

While the Americans and Brits are similar to South Africans – all but chained to their desks for the full workday – the Europeans know how to lunch right. In an article for Saveur.com, Daryn Wright notes, ‘The French are known to take time with their food, and they believe it’s important to take a break in order to enjoy one of life’s most important pleasures. Lunch, which often consists of a three-course meal, is usually enjoyed with a glass of wine as well.’ However, the French work later hours, and in summer only break for dinner again at around 8 or 9pm.

In Sweden, a new way to ‘do lunch’ is taking hold: Lunch Beat is a non-profit movement of hour-long midday dance parties accompanied by a takeaway meal. Founded by entrepreneur Molly Ränge, the concept is free to recreate in any city, so long as individual Lunch Beats follow certain golden rules, including ‘if it’s your first lunch at Lunch Beat you must dance’ and ‘you don’t talk about your job at Lunch Beat’.

‘Lunch Beats include a DJ spinning beats for an hour,’ says Daryn, ‘which, they believe, “makes it possible to fully embody the buzzwords of playfulness, participation and community”.’

By lunchtime I barely have enough energy to heat up my soup, let alone boogie on down, but I see where they’re going with that. It’s not only unhealthy to sit in front of your screen for nine hours straight, it also stifles creativity and inhibits productivity. In fact, sitting kills. No, really (see ‘Why your desk job may be killing you’).

As documented in the wildly popular The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr Steven Covey (over 15 million copies sold worldwide), it’s important to step away from work and nurture your physical, social, mental and spiritual health, in order to be most efficient. An allegory in the book tells of a man cutting wood with a blunt saw for hours, barely making headway. A passerby says something to the effect of, ‘You should stop and sharpen your saw.’ The lumberjack replies, ‘I’m too busy cutting wood.’

The moral here is obvious: in order to be more productive at the task at hand, it’s important to take a break to refresh and regroup (sharpen the saw that is your mind, if you will), then get back to your to-do list.

It’s not only lunch breaks that need to be reinstated: taking weekends and holidays is just as important to maintain your health and wellbeing, and to keep you creative and inspired at work.

‘Some people remain loosely plugged into the office, with scheduled check-ins by phone, even if from a beach chair on some warmer shore. Some continue to monitor and respond to emails, keeping projects on schedule. Some unplug completely, leaving explicit instructions for others and leaving their mobile devices off,’ says Neil Amato in an article for the Journal of Accountancy.

‘What hasn’t changed is that there is a business need to take vacation, even if it’s a few three-day weekends at a time. There are reasons aplenty: to avoid burnout, to come back to work refreshed, or to spend time with loved ones who might have been neglected during busy season or a time-consuming project. [And] what some organisations are starting to understand is this: taking time off is better for business in the long run.’

In fact, some life insurers refuse to pay out policies of employees who do not take their three weeks of annual leave. Holidays are not a ‘nice to have’ – they are a necessity.

At the beginning of this year, a law was passed in France that effectively banned after-hours email-checking. Introduced by the then French labour minister Myriam El Khomri, the new law requires companies of 50 or more employees to negotiate with employees on their rights to switch off and the ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives. Some measures include cutting email connections in the evening and weekends, and even automatically destroying emails that are sent to employees on holiday, so they don’t return to an overwhelming inbox.  ‘All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,’ French Socialist MP Benoit Hamon told Hugh Schofield for BBC.com. ‘Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails… They colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.’

As somebody who has work emails coming through on my iPhone, iPad and personal laptop, I know this to be true. We are always available. Even if we do not respond after hours, knowing about an issue that will have to be tackled first thing, or a last-minute story that needs to be filed by 2pm, is anxiety-inducing to say the least.

It’s not always our company’s fault though – in many cases, we’re our own worst enemies. ‘Competition in the workplace is fierce,’ says YoungAh Park, assistant professor
of psychology at Kansas State University and former businesswoman. ‘People may worry about job security, or want to increase their salary or advance in their career, so they feel they have to be more dedicated to their work. They show that by making themselves available outside of normal work hours.

‘You tend to conform to the norm in the workplace. If people around you at work practise integration of work into the home and family life, then you are likely to conform to this – and the reverse is also true. For example, if you want to dedicate your off-work time to your family but your boss calls you about a to-do list for work over the weekend, you cannot totally ignore it and therefore cannot fully detach yourself from work-related matters.’

But the data associated with this kind of behaviour cannot be ignored: a survey of almost 1 400 participants conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center found that ‘leisure, including vacations, contributed to more positive emotions and fewer negative feelings and depression’, while a study from the University of Calgary, where almost 900 lawyers who worked in high-stress firms were examined, found that those who participated in active and social leisure activities, like playing a sport, visiting friends and taking a holiday, were far happier and healthier than those who did not. 

So, statistically speaking, taking more time off results in greater success in your career, as well as lower stress levels and more happiness at work and home. And who doesn’t want that?

So, don’t feel guilty for taking some time off this festive season – whether you’re jetting off somewhere tropical or enjoying a stay-cation, put your feet up, switch off your email notifications, forget about work and relaaax.

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