“Oh, I’m really sorry, the jacket potato took ages to arrive…” Do you feel guilty about taking a lunch break?

By Mike Oliver, Trainee Health Psychologist.

What has the length of time it takes to queue up for a jacket potato got to do with taking breaks at work? For some people, it turns out that it’s a handy way to explain to their colleagues why they’re “late” back from lunch. And by “late”, I don’t mean “late”. All they’ve done is taken a bit longer than they feel comfortable in taking for their lunch break.

How have we got to the point where some people feel guilty about taking their legally allowable break?

Taking a break is good for your health isn’t it? So taking breaks is just common sense isn’t it? It’s certainly not common practice. At the place I work, our latest staff survey told us that 42% of our workforce, either don’t take a lunch break at all or take less than the legally required minimum time of 20 minutes. (Yes, that’s right – it is the law for your employer to allow most workers to take a 20 minute, uninterrupted break, at some point during the day). There appears to be a growing trend nationally for large numbers of people not to take breaks at work, with surveys reporting that between 66% and 82% of workers do not always take their breaks (Bupa, 2015; Mastercard/Ipsos Mori, 2016).

In my research into the psychological and social benefits of taking breaks during the working day (in office settings), I uncovered an amazing set of thoughts and behaviours linked to taking breaks (or not) during the working day. As well as review and meta-analysis of literature in the field, I was curious to find out how people thought about taking breaks.  Putting it simply, I asked groups of office workers at a large employer, the following, deeply insightful, questions:

  • “Do you take your lunch breaks?”
  • “Why?” Or: “Why not?”

Using a combination of my curiosity and a structured way of analysing what people said, I found that:

  • Lots of people feel anxious and guilty about taking breaks
  • Work “wins”. Faced with a choice when they’re really busy, even if someone wants to take a break, then work “wins”
  • If you’ve got a great set of colleagues who all want to take lunch breaks, then guess what… you’ll take your breaks!  And if you don’t have a great set of colleagues, then guess what…?
  • If you choose to take your break at your desk, then people acknowledge that they are “fair game” for being given work to do!
  • It’s not  as simple as 2 groups emerging (those who do, and those who don’t take breaks) – people move from group to group depending on lots of situational factors

I’m now trying to work with these themes to look for ways to change the culture to one where people at least feel more comfortable to take a break if they want to. Clearly, if you have a job, the culture at your workplace will almost certainly be different to the one where I work, but perhaps, this blog might make you think a bit differently. Go on, stop reading this, move away from your screen… and take a break!

Mike will be sharing more about his research into the consequences of taking breaks (or not) during the working day at Psychologist in the Pub on Wednesday 1st May at The Glebe in Stoke.

Mike currently in his third year studies in his Professional Doctorate in Health Psychology at Staffordshire University, which he combines with working in the Public Health team in a Local Authority. Mike can be contacted via: m.oliver@student.staffs.ac.uk

The Department of Psychology at Staffordshire University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology at the University’s £30 million Science Centre in Stoke-on-Trent. The department is home to the Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research, a large and active group of psychologists, PhD students and researchers conducting work into a variety of psychological disciplines and topic areas.

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