‘I can’t remember the last time I took an hour for lunch,’ says Beata Maj ACCA and now works for an investment bank in Poland’s capital city, Warsaw. ‘Some days I manage to go out for half an hour to get some fresh air, but my manager rarely stops for lunch and she seems to expect the same of me. My contract says I should take an hour for lunch each day, but no one does that.’
Depressingly, this appears to be the norm, whether you work in Warsaw, London or Kuala Lumpur. According to a recent survey, nearly 30% of us cut our lunch breaks short (to 30 minutes and less) or even skip them altogether, and this figure rises to 43% among graduate trainees. This is despite the fact that, at least in the UK, 43% of employers actually encourage lunch breaks in a bid to look after staff health, according to a survey by Aviva Health UK.
In challenging economic times, when both our jobs and company profit margins are under pressure, the short – or non-existent – lunch break is often self-imposed, particularly by new employees. ‘You want to make a good first impression by appearing dedicated and keen,’ says Lisa Whitehead, a health and wellbeing expert (www.getalife-uk.co.uk). ‘But you can achieve this through good time management rather than working through your lunch breaks which, over a period of time, can cause long-term stress and drop in productivity.’ Your performance suffers when you’re stressed or tired: you may be at work, but you are not fit for work.
Keyboard full of crumbs
Forsake your lunch hour and your eating habits will suffer too, according to Aviva. Thirteen per cent of us skip lunch at work altogether, whereas another 19% overeat – both behaviours are unhealthy extremes. Dr Doug Wright, head of clinical development at Aviva UK Health, says: ‘Eating healthily can improve general wellbeing and life expectancy. You really need to break the habit of skipping lunch or eating at your desk.’
Skipping lunch is probably the worst thing you can do because you end up running on empty. But eating quickly while hunched over your keyboard is bad for you too. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating fast may cause obesity because it interferes with the signalling system that tells your brain when you’re full. It gives you heartburn too, which can lead to other, potentially serious, health problems like inflammation of the oesophagus.
Thinking you can refuel with caffeinated drinks, sweets and chocolate? Think again. ‘This just exacerbates the problem,’ says Lisa Whitehead, a health and wellbeing expert. ‘You’re giving yourself a surging high followed by a crashing low in energy and blood sugar levels and this leads to less focus, greater fatigue and will make you more irritable too!’
Using your lunch break to exercise stops you ‘vegging out’ at your desk, mindlessly surfing the net. Instead, you can try to get fitter or lose weight, or simply recharge your batteries to counteract that post-lunch energy slump.
You don’t need to join a trendy gym to get moving, and it doesn’t matter if you work in a concrete city jungle where the nearest bit of greenery is miles away. There’s still plenty you can do, in or outside the office, without any special equipment. Here are some tips from fitness expert Lisa Fenwick (www.lovestorun.co.uk):
- Pack in your bag a sports top designed to ‘wick away’ moisture from the skin to change into. This way, your work shirt/blouse will stay in crisp condition for any afternoon meetings.
- Decide which days you will work out and set yourself a goal each week. For instance, three days a week, 25 minutes at a time, isn’t too difficult to start with and should keep you motivated.
- Start with a five minute warm up to increase the heart rate and prevent injury: run up and down the stairs or walk briskly around the building.
- A simple exercise plan encompassing strength training and stretching will help you tone up without getting too hot. Squats, lunges, the plank, wall push ups, tricep dips and lateral raises using bottles of water as makeshift dumb bells will exercise your upper and lower body, and some of your core. Try two sets of 10 repetitions, ensuring they are controlled movements to begin with. Hold the plank for 30 seconds.
- The plan shouldn’t have you in a sweat; however, if you feel you do need to freshen up, baby wipes are perfect.
- Increase the duration, intensity and frequency of your exercises every couple of weeks.
Exercise your lunchtime options
Healthy eating aside, your body and your brain need to rest too. Otherwise you get to 4pm and are not able to concentrate. So, what can you do?
Although it may sound tiring in itself, get moving. ‘A lunchtime workout will give you the energy boost needed for the afternoon “graveyard shift”,’ says Lisa Fenwick, fitness expert and personal trainer. ‘Of course, not many employers offer a luxury, state-of-the-art on-site gym with shower facilities, but you can have a full body workout without these.’
If you feel lazy – just go for a walk. Walking clears your mind. Oxygen makes your brain happy. If you can, switch your ‘work brain’ off – you’ll come back more refreshed.
Stuck for lunch break ideas? We have prepared a few simple suggestions to get you going. Whatever you decide to do, try taking proper lunch breaks for a week, advises Lisa Whitehead, a health and wellbeing expert. ‘You will soon notice the positive effect on your clarity of mind, energy levels and productivity, not to mention enjoyment of life in general.’
Of course, it can feel awkward if your manager or colleagues consistently work through their lunch break. Remember, though: unless there are extenuating circumstances, no one can stop you from having yours. Check that there’s nothing urgent to do before you go. Then head out and switch off. And enjoy it.
Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a freelance writer