Italians have the right idea about lunch: they’ll take a long break, digest their meal, maybe even have a quick nap, and then go back to work. Things are similar in São Paolo, where everyone has a proper feed and a catch-up before getting back to it.
By contrast, the Great British lunch hour has recently become a miserly 28 minutes. At least according to research late last year from Mastercard and Ipsos MORI. Their survey also found that while only 17% of British employees take their full lunchbreak, 12% barely ever have one at all.
It’s a common trap. When the work is piling up, our inner taskmaster can easily convince us to stay at the desk, even if a break would clearly work wonders on our flagging ideas and haggard posture.
But it’s not just about the individual. Giving everyone a proper break to re-energise, foster new relationships or find fresh inspiration can have a huge impact on your business – from the boosted productivity of a happy, healthy workforce to an improved appeal to talented new recruits, who’ll want to know that their prospective employer is on the front foot when it comes to wellbeing.
So here are a few ideas to make that lunch hour far more nourishing…
1. Break the routine
Wake Up! is a free app that aims to shake up users’ thinking with a range of quick and easy challenges – like getting lost in your lunch break. ‘People tend to stick to the same places, streets and lunch spots,’ says creator Chris Baréz-Brown, who's on a mission to crush pernicious habits. ‘Instead of relying on autopilot, go to places you don't know, where you have to be more conscious and more alert.’ Being more engaged with the world and looking at at it from a different angle could lead to fresher ideas back at the workplace.
Commercial property group Land Securities revamped its lunchbreaks as part of a raft of wider changes designed to ‘help people thrive, and operate in a way that’s happier and healthier’.
‘People used to buy in food at eat at their desk,’ says Clive Johnson, Land Security’s head of health and safety. ‘Now it’s all about getting them a proper break to go out into the fresh air, recharge and mix with others.’ This, he says, has delivered clear benefits to the business. ‘People come back energised, and they may have chatted with people from different departments, so they’re no longer siloed in their own space as they were before. This drives the company’s productivity up, and all sorts of people I’ve brought in, whether from the government or external partners, have been blown away by what we’ve created.’
With summer approaching, there's no better time to get outside, have a run and feel the sun on your back. Or you could just have an aimless wander. Walking slows time and helps ideas to flow, as does an injection of endorphins from harder exercise. So it's not just about vitamin D: one UK private school noticed a high number of staff being signed off with stress. They were paying a fortune in supply teachers. The school introduced swimming at lunchtimes for staff, sparking a drop in stress-related sick leave.
3. Up your culinary game
When it comes to attractive perks, it’s hard to beat a free lunch, especially when it’s healthy, delicious and interesting. Guildford-based video games studio Media Molecule only employs around 50 people, but it still has two chefs on hand to present an imaginative, nutritious diet every day. The buffet-style dining leads to fresh conversations and collaboration across the feasting table, as people combine in new ways to break bread together, generating greater levels of trust and faster decision-making. They've also got nice sofas with colourful cushions, so even those heating a homemade soup can get a better break, and find themselves in far fresher conversations than if they’d been chained to their desk.
4. If you work at lunch, do it properly
Make the streets an extension of the workplace. ‘Most good ideas come from outside ourselves,’ says David Pearl, creator of Street Wisdom, a social enterprise that works with companies to encourage their employees to make more of their environment. ‘If you think of a problem and turn your attention outwards, a slogan on a bus can suggest a solution, as can overhearing a snippet of conversation. Go out and ask strangers for their advice. It's amazing the number of times people come up with answers you didn't know you needed.’ Pearl once asked a team at Barclays how long they took for lunch. The longest was 11 minutes.
5. Nourish your mind
A year of misused lunch hours adds up to a waste of 15 full days – more than most American workers get in holiday allowance. If you're currently bemoaning a lack of time to write poetry or learn an instrument, think how far you could get if you claimed that time back and used the hour more deliberately each day. And if you find out that poetry isn't for you, at least you can stop moaning about it.
People in offices can easily lose contact with their colleagues, even when they're sat opposite each other every day. Pearl once encouraged an HR team to agree to bring food in and share it, working through their annual performance reviews in a series of picnics rather than the usual stuffy meeting room. ‘It may be obvious, but taking care of other people immediately changed the social atmosphere from colleagues to mates,’ he says. ‘There was a sense of occasion, and they managed to stop the clock a little.’
For more ideas on how to build bulletproof health and safety, visit the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health