Breathing Space September 2022

by Dan Comer

I have asked lots of audiences if they leave their desk and take an actual break for lunch. The answer is almost always “No, I don’t.” I never did, either. We are so busy, have so much to do, and we need that 30 minutes to do something productive. Why would anyone voluntarily lose those valuable minutes?

We think (at least, I did) that we are being more productive when we eat at our desk. Or maybe—pay attention here—we just don’t know how to turn off the part of us that conceives of time not working as time lost instead of time gained.

In truth, the desk lunch is counterproductive. It makes us worse at our jobs, worse coworkers, and more exhausted. If we understand burnout as an occupational hazard, then it’s time to consider how we can protect ourselves against the desk lunch.

The truth is that work will expand to fill whatever parcel of time you give it. Also true is that when you shorten the workday or the workweek (or mandate paid time off for rest and rejuvenation), you end up with workers who are more resilient, both intellectually and physically. Creativity, innovation, precision, perception—so many of the characteristics that are fundamental to a job well done—become elusive without resting the body and the mind. So, what can we do?

Some people who remain remote have nonetheless taken to scheduling weekly lunches with their teams. You can eat with yourself outdoors, with your kid while actually talking to them, with your coworkers in or out of the office, with the friend that you miss terribly, or with your parent. What matters is that you’re doing it while not working—ideally, without screens at all—and reclaiming the rest that is rightfully yours.

(As a related side note, I am starting to love France. Until very recently, it was against the law to eat lunch at your desk in France! And they recently passed a law that makes it illegal to send a work email after 6:00 PM. Hmm…)