If you work for more than six hours a day in the UK, you’re legally entitled to a rest break of at least twenty minutes per shift. Many workers get more; if you work an eight hour day, it’s likely your employer will give you an hour-long lunch break.
Whether or not you actually take that break, however, is a different matter. Despite the fact that breaks can increase motivation and productivity and decrease potentially damaging inactivity, research has indicated a growing trend of workers eating their lunch at their desks or not taking their rest time. Some figures suggest 82% of workers don’t always take their breaks — a significant proportion of the workforce.
So why is it that we’re so often eating al desko? A study published in Psychology and Health has some insights.
Mike Oliver and colleagues from Staffordshire University conducted five focus groups with 27 employees at a local council. These groups were separated by grade: two focus groups consisted of junior staff, two of middle managers and one of senior managers. Sessions lasted one hour, with a semi-structured interview approach which allowed consistency of questions with the freedom to take conversations in different directions based on individual contributions.
Questions explored workers’ current experience of taking breaks — do or don’t they take them, and why? Participants were also asked how their relationship with their manager affects their likelihood of taking breaks, and what their attitude was towards the workplace as somewhere that affects their mental and physical health.
The team identified five themes in the participants’ responses. First, participants reported fluidity in their taking a break: while there were some who always took a break and some who never took one, most sat somewhere between the two, seeming to view taking a lunch break as something that needed to be “booked in” like a meeting. Relationships with managers were also important — those who felt under no pressure to skip breaks were less likely to do so, unsurprisingly, than those who did.
Participants were also well aware of the fact taking breaks benefited their health and well-being — but still saw completing work tasks as more important. Feelings of guilt and anxiety about having taken “too much” time away from the desk were also prevalent. Finally, space was an issue — because participants often had nowhere to go, they ended up eating at their desk out of necessity and were subsequently seen as available for work related requests or tasks.
Underpinning each of these five themes is the balance between work and health — a toss-up that, more often than not, work wins. The fact that most people don’t simply fall into two binary camps but rather are fluid in their decisions about taking breaks suggests that it’s not set traits or personality types driving those decisions, but context — what an organisation’s culture is like, or how individual line managers talk about breaks and work. Further research could explore these nuances further.
The layout and design of offices could also be a fruitful avenue to explore — what does a healthy office building look like, and what could it include to ensure workers are taking breaks and staying active?
There were limitations to the study. Though focus groups were organised by seniority and grade, it’s possible that subtle power dynamics were at play during the meetings, leading participants to answer in socially acceptable or desirable ways rather than being fully honest. The study also took place within a single, public sector organisation, and with a small number of participants — future research could investigate these themes in different groups, sectors and geographic locations.
It would be difficult to mandate break-taking — sometimes it might be necessary to work through a break, sometimes it’s just nice to not have to go and get lunch in the rain. But workplace well-being programmes should certainly take these sorts of findings into account: after all, insidious cultures in which bosses and colleagues pressure workers to cut short necessary break times are doing nothing but making workers less healthy.