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Why the lunch break is going extinct

Not only is a leisurely European-style lunch not an option for most of the U.S. workforce, we’re lucky if we get a midday meal break at all.  Your Career, by Eve Tahmincioglu
Duane Hoffmann /

My relatives in Athens, Greece have always indulged when it came to their lunch breaks.

They’d leave work and head home around 1 p.m. and sit down with family at a big table loaded with food, everything from grilled octopus with greens to roasted lemon chicken and potatoes. There was also always wine and Ouzo, an anise-flavored liquor, flowing.

As you can imagine, everyone got pretty tired partaking in this feast so they’d all go off to bed for at least an hour nap.

Around 3:30 or 4 p.m. they’d go back to the office or factory and toil until about 7 or 8 p.m.

I always mocked my relatives when we would visit them in Greece during my teen years. Their endless lunch breaks seemed to me to be the height of laziness.

Ah, the ignorance of youth. I would give my right arm if I could get that kind of lunch today. Who wouldn’t?

Not only is this not an option for most of the U.S. workforce, we’re lucky if we get a lunch break at all.

The workers at don’t get any lunch breaks Monday through Thursday.

“It is encouraged that we eat at our desks and use this ‘down time’ to address e-mails, inter-office meetings, and other tasks and necessities that would interrupt the flow of the normal course of the work day,” says Ken Wisnefski, president of the company that helps businesses find outsourcing services. He points out that the company is a bit more lax on Fridays and workers can take up to an hour to do what they wish.

What Wisnefski found was his workers were spending so much time scheduling lunches and then ramping back up again after lunches that they ended up playing catch up for most of the day.

“Now things are more organized, less chaotic,” he explains.

Lunch hours, forget them. Those were long gone years ago. A study by chicken fast food chain KFC Corp., found that 60 percent of workers in Corporate America actually considered the lunch hour “the biggest myth of office life.”

But now a growing number of employees are finding they are also losing their right to a lunch half hour, or any break at all. About 55 percent of workers take a half hour or less for their lunch breaks, according to a survey by Steelcase, an office equipment maker.

Women, who are forever trying to prove themselves in the work world, are not surprisingly more likely to take shorter lunch breaks than men; and all you uptight Northeasterners are also taking shorter lunches than your counterparts in the rest of the nation.

Many workplace experts suspect even those workers who are allotted a half hour for lunch, often end up never leaving their desks.

The move to shorter or non-existent lunches is in some cases self-imposed. “It’s almost as though workers started the trend,” says Deborah Brown-Volkman, a career coach.

We’re all too busy these days to take a leisurely lunch and we also want to get out of work at a reasonable hour so we can have some quality time with our families and friends. If you work through lunch, the thought goes, you can get out of the office before the witching hour.

In the case of VendorSeek, employees actually hatched the idea to do a way with lunches, maintains Wisnefski. “They asked, ‘why do we need to take lunch?’”

Well, it turns out giving up your lunch break could actually diminish your productivity, causing you to end up putting in more hours in the long run, not to mention what it does for your health and well being. “I joke sometimes that smokers are the healthiest people in the work place these days because they get outside,” says Brown-Volkman.

“Your brain needs to rest,” she adds. “Sometimes, in order to concentrate you have to think about something different, get a way from the problem. Sunshine is good for the body, mind and soul.”

And Joe Takash is a business consultant claims lunch breaks can “help boost creativity and profits.”

This may be a good selling point for your boss if you’re one of those workers who want to reclaim their right to a lunch.

Here are some other ways to convince your boss you need time to dine, from psychologist and corporate consultant Kevin Fleming:

  • "Make it an informal setting for a discussion of some important work topic best done 'offsite.'  Bosses love this. Shows not that you want your lunch back, but that you are astute to office politics and have good boundaries."
  • “Make it a 'leadership lunch.'  Tell your superiors it is an alignment lunch to get folks on the same page and to make sure they are making them richer faster.”
  • “Convince them that the lunch break makes you more productive. Be a 'Columbo' [the 1970s TV detective] and show them data that compares these two camps. Many times corporate America is used to hard data so speak in a language they will understand.”
  • “If all else fails, make a low blood sugar scene of dramatic proportions.”

There is no federal law that provides for lunch or coffee breaks, but some states may have provisions. “California law does require that employers provide unpaid meal periods after five hours of work, as well as rest periods, for most employees,” says Greg Mersol, a Cleveland attorney with Baker Hostetler.  Here’s a Web link to some state provisions.

We all need to bring back the mid-day break.

And don’t forget to eat something, demands Kathleen Hall, a stress and work-life balance expert. “Food boosts mental and physical productivity and regulates moods. But don’t just eat anything within reach. Eat foods that boost brain activity like Salmon or blueberries. Foods can also fight anxiety, stress and panic, which is good if you’re having an especially difficult day.”

Now just in case you are still daydreaming about my relatives in Greece and their three hour lunch extravaganza, things are changing even in that laid back country. Unfortunately, the nation has moved closer to the U.S. model of a 9 to 5 workday in recent years. 

Well, not everyone. On my last trip there, my uncles, aunts and cousins were still toasting to life over long lunches and squeezing in their midday siestas.