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How and why to reclaim your lunch break and create a better work-life balance

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We all strive for the perfect work/life balance, but have we been overlooking the ideal opportunity to get it in the middle of our working day? We think it’s time to down tools and claim back the lunch break

Words: Lizzie Pook

It’s 1pm and you’re looking out the window. It’s hard to be sure from inside a centrally heated office, but it could be cold outside. And it might rain. And, it’s so much easier to sit opposite your computer, chewing on a Pret sandwich while catching up on emails. Plus, you have to sort out your expenses and it wouldn’t hurt to start on that PowerPoint for next week either. It’s not as if your colleagues are doing anything different. The idea of sitting down in a restaurant or going for a leisurely stroll couldn’t be farther from anyone’s minds. This is the 21st century lunch break; the ‘lunch’ part may take place, but the ‘break’ bit? Yeah, that’s a misnomer. Unless, of course, you count the five minutes you spend shaking crumbs out of your keyboard.

It’s a sorry situation, but taking a full, one-hour lunch break has become one of our biggest office taboos. Research carried out in 2011 by Bupa showed that just three in 10 of us take a full hour, with over a third of employees saying they feel under pressure from their boss to work through (half consider the weight of their workload too large to take a break). A more recent survey commissioned by BBC Breakfast in 2013 found the situation to be even worse, with 54% working through their lunch hour and 53% believing there to be a widespread culture of their colleagues doing the same.

It’s time to make a change. We all strive for the perfect work/life balance, perhaps this could be a great way to achieve it. Just imagine what you could accomplish with that one hour every day, five hours every week, 20 hours every month, 240 hours a year? You could learn a new language, write a novel, or even master that skill you’d always considered a far-off pipe dream. This year, Stylist is launching its ‘Reclaim Your Lunch Break’ campaign to encourage you to take ownership of that one hour that is rightfully yours. We’re not going to force you to lunge around your nearest park at 1pm every day, but dedicating time to something that’s important to you will do you a world of good. Believe us. Here’s three reasons to make the most of those precious 60 minutes.

1. It improves productivity

“There’s an underlying assumption by employees that you’re a wimp if you take lunch, or that you’re not committed to your job,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, who believes this culture of ‘presenteeism’ has developed because people were scared of losing their jobs during the recession. But actually, we’re sabotaging ourselves by staying at our desks.

Ploughing full steam ahead for nine hours is not going to do you any favours. Bupa found that almost half of workers say their productivity dips at about 3pm if they have not taken a break, simply because working without renewal periods exhausts our cognitive capacity. Fifty years ago, American physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that humans can only focus for 90 minutes, and require a 20- minute break thereafter or else we get fidgety, drowsy or hungry. Nowadays, we counteract this natural cycle with caffeine (hence the 4pm coffee run) or draw on our own stress hormones to keep going, forcing our bodies into a state of permanent ‘fight or flight’. This loss of efficiency has financial implications too, with Bupa finding that UK companies are losing up to £50million a day in lost productivity as workers fail to take a lunch break.

2. You'll be healthier 

Regular breaks truly help our brains and bodies. “There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that taking a lunch break leads to better health and wellbeing and increased employee engagement,” says Ksenia Zheltoukhova, research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Cooper agrees: “But not only is it about physical health,” he says. “We need full-spectrum light, especially at this time of year, so it’s important to physically get out of a building.” This is crucial because the sun’s light spectrum is vital to releasing certain hormones such as serotonin, dubbed ‘the happiness hormone’.

Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin have also found that eating at your desk makes you more stressed and less creative, so you should leave the building, just for 15 minutes. You’ll fare even better if you brave the gym or take a walk; in a study carried out by the University of Bristol researchers discovered that people who exercise on work days are more productive, happier and suffer less stress than on non-gym days.

3. You'll bond with your team

Cooper believes that working through lunch is something we’ve picked up from the US. “We’re the workaholics of Europe,” he says. “The UK has the longest working hours, by far, of any developed European country, but we have the shortest lunches. We’re very ‘Americanised’; we look to the US for how to manage people and how workers should be organised – even our business language is Americanised – but Americans don’t take lunches, so we don’t either.”

But he’s keen to explain the widerreaching benefits of a longer, dedicated break: “Being at our desks all day means we’re not interacting on a decent social level with our colleagues. Going out to eat with a colleague at lunch is how you form good relationships. It’s how you team-build.” The science is there to back this up, too. In 2008, a study carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that workplace chatter and socialising during breaks significantly increases productivity. And, if we’re entirely honest with ourselves, spending lunch organising our emails into folders and making an early start on writing that presentation that could wait until next week is not exactly sociable is it?

We need a lunch break revolution and here at Stylist we intend to lead from the front. So scroll down for a few suggestions on how you could be spending your lunch break, to whet a different kind of appetite.


lunch break
  • We will encourage you to take at least a 30-minute lunch break each day, with at least one full-hour break a week

  • We aim to get 100 companies to sign up to our campaign to become a ‘Lunch Break- Friendly’ company by July

  • We’ll put on lunch events and workshops around the country and invite you to join us

  • We will encourage companies to organise productive and social lunch events for staff

  • We’ll support your lunch-time rights and show you how to lobby your employer to make your break more productive

  • We will test new and exciting ways to fill your lunch break

  • We aim to change the UK’s lunch-break culture

Join our campaign

Find exciting lunch-time events in your area and discover how to get your company involved. Register at stylist.co.uk/lunch-break-sign-up


10 ways to spend your lunch break

Sign up to a cookery school

Sign up to a cookery school

1. Cook up a new skill

(London) Instead of carting in leftover stir-fry in a bit of old Tupperware, why not cook your lunch (and eat it) under expert tutelage instead? The Cook, Eat, Run sessions at L’atelier des Chefs cookery school are thought to be the world’s only 30-minute cooking classes that take place between 12 and 2pm. You’ll find expert chefs on hand to help you create delicious lunches from chicken stew to handmade pasta.

£15; L’ateliers des Chefs; 19 Wigmore Street, W1U; ateliersdeschefs.co.uk

2. Take in a play

(London) We’re not talking Hamlet-length here, obviously, but the St Bride Foundation’s Lunchbox Theatre provides a welcome escape from office dramas (their joke) with plays that last 45 minutes. The 2015 programme is still to be confirmed but most recently on show was Tinderella, a pantomime for the new age (surely we don’t need to explain the plotline). Tickets can be bought on the door and performances start at 1pm.

£7; St Bride Foundation, Fleet Street, EC4Y; sbf.org.uk

3. Warm up, chill out

(Liverpool) The concentration it takes to maintain a warrior pose in 40°C heat should be enough to flush out any lingering work issues from your mind. The founders behind Liverpool’s Yoga Hub know that, precisely why they offer Express Hot Yoga sessions every lunch time for the stressedout employees of the city’s business district. Designed to keep you energised and motivated for the rest of the day, it’s a cardio and mental workout, all in 45/60 minutes depending on the timetable.

£9; Liverpool Yoga Hub, 21 Old Hall Street, L3; yogahubliverpool.co.uk

4. Let the music play

(London) If you need a little high-brow entertainment to take you out of that Monday slump, BBC Radio 3’s lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall from 1pm should perk you up. Established and up-and-coming musicians perform classical pieces from Bach to Tchaikovsky for an hour. Best of all, research suggests that listening to classical music boosts creativity and imagination, so your afternoon will be all the more productive for it.

£13; 36 Wigmore Street, W1U; wigmore-hall.org.uk

5. Get thinking 

(Glasgow) Bend your brain around this series of free lunchtime lectures run by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Open Studies. Presented by leading academics and researchers, past subjects include hallucination and perception, voluntary euthanasia and snails (of course). The 50-minute Friday classes start at 12:10pm and are open to all. Bring a notebook.

Free; University of Glasgow, University Avenue, G12; gla.ac.uk/services/centreforopenstudies

Listen to a little music during your break

Listen to a little music during your break

6. Network over food

(Nationwide) Let’s face it; a ‘networking’ lunch might be some people’s idea of a nightmare. But actually, for those working from home or anyone who wants to break into a new industry, they can be invaluable. Websites such as getlunched. com and letslunch.com allow you to create a profile and connect with people who might be able to help you with that big idea or simply share similar interests. You can both ‘rank’ each other for helpfulness after and keep in touch if you’ve made a good business connection.

getlunched.com; letslunch.com

7. Focus your mind

(Birmingham) Whether it’s your frosty boss or that deadline keeping you up at night, recent studies carried out by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have shown that meditation is an effective method for coping with stress and anxiety in the workplace. So if you’re faced with a particularly taxing few weeks, or you simply feel in need of a spot of relaxation, try spending a couple of lunch breaks a week clearing your mind at these 1pm sessions.

£4; Priory Rooms, Quaker Meeting House, 40 Bull Street, B4; meditateinbirmingham.org

8. Craft a hobby

(London) For those whose ‘enthusiastic’ attempts at doodling look more like childish stick figures than discernible art, these drop-in lunchtime life drawing classes could be beneficial. Taking place every Friday from 11am-1pm, would-be artists can pop in for as long as they like (models pose from 30 seconds to 50 minutes) and you’ll get general tutoring on your efforts.

£10; Artizan Street Library, Liverpool St, E1; londondrawing.com

9. Boost your knowledge

(Nationwide) The Stuff You Should Know podcast covers everything from crop circles to collective hysteria and great white sharks. So it’s 40 minutes well spent boosting your pub quiz credentials. Download and listen directly from iTunes (and maybe take a walk as you do), or check the website below for an archive of past episodes. Prepare to be addicted.

Free; stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts 

10. Follow an audio tour

(London) Ever fancied seeing London as Charles Dickens did? Or uncovering the capital’s greatest, and most grisly, ghost stories? Download a guided audio tour (complete with map) from The Guardian’s brilliant series of podcasts and you’ll get firmly beneath the surface of the capital (and clock up some lunch-break exercise, too). Follow Oliver Twist’s walking route from The Angel Islington to the courthouse of Mr Fang, or discover the poetry and literature inspired by Kensington Gardens.

Free; theguardian.com/travel/series/london-walks

For more ideas, visit stylist.co.uk/reclaim-your-lunch-break and let us know your thoughts on the campaign in the comments section below or tweet us with the hashtag #reclaimyourlunchbreak

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