A new research paper on workplace health released last week attempts to understand “Why do so many of us feel guilty about taking a lunch break?” Read the survey highlights at Science Daily.com.

The paper’s lead author Dr. Mike Oliver explained, “the legally required minimum time for a lunch break at work is 20 minutes, however, there is a growing trend nationally for large numbers of people not to take breaks at work, with surveys reporting that between 66% and 82% of workers don’t always take their breaks.

The researchers were in the United Kingdom. In Nevada, the wage and hour laws generally require employers to provide non-exempt (hourly) employees with at least a 30-minute meal break for every 8 hours of continuous work. In addition, employees must be provided with at least a 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours worked or a major portion thereof.

With many employees now working from home during the quarantine lockdown, Dr. Oliver wrote that some people may find it even harder to take breaks, but it’s even more important now.

“There is mounting concern about the amount of time people spend sitting down at work and not being physically active, so it is really important that people don’t put work ahead of breaks and their own physical and psychological health.”

Just existing in the world right now with the generalized worries about the health concerns and economic pressures brought on by COVID-19 and the quarantine is already stressful. “So, how have we got to the point where some people feel guilty about taking their legally allowable break? We were curious to look at the psychological and social behaviors of office workers to understand the enablers and barriers.”

“We found that one of the best ways to make sure that you take breaks is to take them with your work colleagues or to be encouraged to take them by your boss. If they are not physically near you, we may find it harder to act on these social prompts.” For the research, groups of office workers at a large employer of differing levels of seniority were asked about their lunch break habits.

Dr. Oliver, Ph.D. specializing in Health Psychology said, “This paper highlights the complex relationships that people have with taking breaks, with others and with their physical environment. Some participants did recognize the importance of taking a break in the middle of the day, but others appeared to convince themselves that by doing a less intense work activity, such as responding to emails, whilst eating their lunch at their desk, would actually be taking a break.

The analysis identified five key themes:

  • Behaviors depend on various factors — it is not as simple as having those who do take breaks and those who don’t.
  • The influence of social and work relationships — if your colleagues take breaks then you are more likely to yourself and vice-versa.
  • Faced with a choice when they’re really busy, even if someone wants to take a break, then work “wins.”
  • Contradictory feelings — lots of people feel anxious and guilty about taking breaks, although some simply don’t.
  • Being ‘fair game’ for work-related matters if you remain at your desk at break times.

Plenty of other research has confirmed the mental value of taking breaks from thinking about work improves motivation and physically moving around increases productivity.

It’s important to recognize that with all the added pressures, on top of the usual pressures from work that we’re all facing now, the need to keep your cool is increased. Finding little ways to reduce stress and diffuse stressful encounters are paramount. The lunch break, especially while working at home is important to maintaining mental equilibrium.

Science writer Ferris Jabr summarizes the benefits of breaks in this Scientific American article: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life … moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

“The greater importance that people appear to be placing on completing their work over the time they give themselves for breaks, or simply the sheer volume and pressure of work, may go some way to explaining this pattern of behavior.”

Dr. Oliver and colleagues recommend further research and organizational changes to support improved workplace health and wellbeing.

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