Written by Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.

Lunch breaks make us happier, healthier and more productive – but in the era of remote working, more people are skipping them than ever before. Christobel Hastings explores the growing trend, and how we can all get the downtime we deserve.

If you struggle to remember the last time you walked inside Pret a Manger and you’ve forgotten the term ‘hot-desking’ existed, you’re not alone.

After more than 100 days in lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and work, with 38% of the population adapting to remote working.

For many of us who have long sought greater job flexibility, the new work normal is finally within grasp: a lie-in and leisurely stroll to the sofa instead of a sweaty crush on the morning commute; facetime with our colleagues over video calls instead of watercooler chat, and, come 5.30pm, a chance to go full-Ottolenghi in the kitchen.

But despite the current obsession for baking sourdough and Scandi pastries, there’s one meal that we’ve continued to neglect: lunch. 

Even though there are plenty of studies to show that people work more effectively if they take breaks, it appears that more UK workers than ever are skipping them in favour of working at their desks.

According to new research by Liberty Games, in fact, 41% of British people admit to being more likely to work through their lunch breaks now they’re working from home.

Worryingly, the survey also found that 38% are actually working longer hours during lockdown, while 29% of people reported feeling more stressed while working from home.

The new work normal

While most of us assumed that the biggest challenge while WFH would be changing out of our pyjamas, the statistics prove that taking a solid lunch break is still a major sticking point for Brits.

Interestingly, while skipping lunch in an office usually signals a heavy workload, remote working has brought its own specific hurdles. Our living spaces have suddenly become our work spaces, and the absence of a real boundary prompts us to work longer, harder hours.

Then there’s the fact that working from home comes with a unique set of distractions, especially when it comes to domestic practicalities. Factor in endless interruptions from loved-ones about whether the TV license has been renewed, or if the loo roll has run out, and it’s clear the leisurely routine we dreamed of at the start of lockdown is suddenly a whole lot more elusive.

One of the biggest barriers to taking a proper lunch break that has emerged in the age of WFH is the pressure to stay online to “prove” to our colleagues that we’re actually working.

No longer do we simply have to stay on top of our inbox, for the world of virtual work brings a whole new host of pressures: Slack, Zoom and Whatsapp, each one pinging with notifications from the workplace chat that fuels an instinct to reply within 30-seconds flat.

“I’m doing the same crazy long hours and eating lunch at my computer like I normally do at work,” says marketing executive Beth. “Ironically, we’re busier than normal and I do think there is an element of feeling the need to be as productive as possible in such uncertain times.”

This growing psychological phenomenon, known as digital presenteeism, not only contributes to a sense of anxiety about whether we’re up to standard; but it means that we’re nearly always ‘on’, even when we’re supposed to be clocking off for lunch.

“I’m hesitant to take a lunch break because I’m scared people will see I’m not online for a few minutes and say I’m not working,” Beth continues.

“I spend more time away from my desk than at it when I’m in the office, but I can’t make a cup of tea at home without feeling guilty.”

The productivity myth 

Even when people do manage to close their laptops, the lunch hour can quickly evaporate.

A lack of groceries might mean a mad dash to the corner shop, while a quick stroll to stretch our legs outside can easily cut into precious minutes.

If we do stay home, the easiest way to maximise our lunch hour can often be to simply eat whatever’s closest to hand.

“When I buy lunch out,” observes partnerships manager Anna, “I’m always more intentional about eating a balanced meal. But these days I just grab whatever leftovers I have lying in the fridge”.

This strategy can also lead us into unhealthy eating habits, as is the case for Stylist reader Giselle. “I like to eat junk at home (maybe because no-one is watching) and make more of an effort when I take food into the office, such as salad and soups”.

Now that working from home may become a long-term reality for many of us in the UK, establishing good practices is all the more important.

Recent research has shown that people who have proper breaks are more productive, less stressed, and enjoy a better night’s sleep, as well as being better equipped to ward off physical and emotional burnout.

Unsurprisingly, eating well can also keep our energy and concentration levels up, as well as safeguard the long-term health of our brain. 

So, while we might be tempted to skip our lunch to catch up with our workload, as a third of UK employees admitted to in the days before lockdown, we’d do well to realise that we can directly improve our productivity by taking a proper rest.

Keeping your lunch locked down 

If you’re longing to embrace the humble lunch break once more, but find your WFH routine undermined by distractions, putting a wellness plan in place can be a good way to take care of the difficulties that arise during the working week.

Making sure you deactivate your Slack account during lunch, for instance, setting a daily reminder on your phone at noon, or even making a pact with a co-worker to hold yourselves accountable for taking a lunch break can be a good way to ensure you get some headspace.

And if your culinary pursuits are always thwarted by a lack of store-cupboard essentials, try to pre-plan your lunches instead of adding to your brain output for the day by having to think of something on the spot. Making enough of a considered dinner for lunch the next day is one of the easiest ways to make the most of the hour.

By making a habit of taking our full lunch break without added stress, we’re giving our brains a chance to recharge so that we can return to our desks firing on full cylinders.

A productive working day, contrary to popular perception, doesn’t look like eight hours of non-stop typing.

It contains rest breaks, time off, and an end to the “working lunch” which turns an hour of relaxed grazing into the always-disappointing meal deal of a meeting + snack.

When we take back our lunch break, we prioritise our health and happiness, and help to create a more positive working culture that we’ll benefit from long term.

As we move into a post-pandemic future, and the formal workplace changes form, these are the things that will matter most.

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