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"You don't understand. I just can't take lunch. They won't let me!", the panicked young trader exclaimed, his eyes looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. In my days as a headhunter, I would frequently interview people, who, realising they could trust me, would let their guard down and tell me what was really going on at work.
I stopped him in his tracks. "Really? You can't take lunch? What are they actually going to do to you if you take lunch?", I asked. He hesitated, "Well..no-one else in the office does....my career.......they might think I'm not serious..."
I decided it was time to share with him the best piece of career advice I had ever been given.
My father isn't one to give a lot of unsolicited advice, which is why when he does I pay attention. When I began my first job in financial markets, we were having a conversation about how things were going. He said, "I'll give you once piece of advice. Always take your lunch". I remember saying, "But what if I have a lot on? What if I don't have time?". He replied, "Make time. It's your break, make a habit to take it, and if for any reason you need to skip it, make up for it". I took his advice, and I have to say it made all the difference in my career and my stress levels.
What did I do in my lunch break? All sorts of different things. Sometimes I just went out and ate my lunch, either on my own, with a colleague or friend. Sometimes I would go for a walk and discover a new location near my office. Sometimes I'd go to the gym. Sometimes I would run errands (bills do need to be paid, and shopping does need to be done!). Sometimes I'd go to a peaceful place, like a park, or a church, and just sit there and be quiet.
What was the benefit? Why not just work? Why not indeed. There is always work to be done. We could work 24 hours a day if we wanted to. However, if you don't create breaks for yourself, when will you rest or have time for other non-work related activities? I know that I always felt re-energised after taking my break and ready to tackle whatever lay ahead.
For those who wish they could take lunch but feel they can't, I pose the question: What do you think is going to happen if you don't take your break? Is the world going to come to a standstill? Does the entire responsibility of the company's future rest on you personally not taking your lunch-break? Does anyone actually have you in some kind of headlock and is preventing you from taking your lunch? Of course I understand that the work needs to get done and that you want to do a good job. I'd also like to point out that even in the army, unless you are in the middle of out-and-out combat you have to take your lunch (I know this because I was in the officer training corps at university, and have friends who are currently still serving in the British armed forces). I can assure you something would have had to have gone seriously wrong for us not to have had our lunch. These days, in my spare time I lead hikes in the mountains. I know for a fact that if you want your team to function well, unless you are in the middle of an electric thunderstorm or concerned about avalanche danger you absolutely need to give them a lunch break and a rest.
Now and then, I agree there are times, when you might work through lunch - in order to meet a very important deadline, or to take that time out to do something else later, e.g., catch a flight, leave earlier to go to see your children's school concert, or escape the rush hour. You may even have a career where you may need to work through traditional lunch hours, in which case you will have a break provided later. However, if you are making it a habit to not take your break and are never making up for lost time, I'd love to find out how you feel at the end of the day: well rested and fulfilled with plenty of energy for the evening to come and looking forward to your next day at work? Or tired, irritated and a little bit cranky desiring simply to go home and collapse on the sofa and not even wanting to think about the next working day?
How you manage your energy and time throughout the day is entirely up to you. If you feel that you have too much work to do that does not allow you to take a lunch-break, then rather than whining about it and feeling sorry for yourself, have an honest conversation with your colleagues or your manager. Perhaps they can help you with your priorities, or see whether some of your responsibilities can be delegated. Your time management and well-being is just as much your own responsibility as it is your employers'.
We are of course all different souls with individual needs for R&R. I do appreciate how hard it can be to tear yourself away from your work if you are really getting involved in it. The point that I am trying to make here is this: you do have a choice. You can take your lunch-break if you want to. Will you be fired for that? Highly unlikely. Will you be passed up for promotion because you chose to exercise a human right of taking time out for lunch? Well, all I can say is, if you are...is that the kind of environment you want to be working in? If so I certainly hope it is worth it.
How are you managing your time and energy throughout the day?
How often are you working through lunch? If often - how often is the work you need to do urgent?
How do you feel at the end of the working day?
I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions. Feel free to comment below. If you wish to contact me directly you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my website