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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK
The lost art of lunching
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Worker eating lunch
Most workers now grab a quick bite to eat
A few fleeting moments to gobble down a sandwich is all that many people can expect from a lunch break. Whatever happened to a relaxed trip to the canteen or pub with colleagues?

Not so long ago you really could have taken a lunch hour.

A sacrosanct part of the daily routine, the 60 minute respite was usually accompanied by two shorter tea breaks which only the most hassled employee would pass up.

Now the average Briton takes just 27 minutes a day away from their desk, a habit adding to the UK's long hours culture.

Critics say it is bad for employees' health, with productivity suffering as stressed individuals struggle to turn their frazzled brains to the very tasks they are working extra hours to fulfil.

Job insecurity, rivalry between colleagues, increased workloads and even e-mails are all accused of contributing to the problem.

Lunchtime sex

Only one in five people takes their full lunch hour, according to the 10th annual Eurest Lunchtime Report.

Women are the least likely to make the most of the time, with one in four never taking a break and those that do using only 25 minutes - four minutes less than their male colleagues.

The myth of lunchtime boozing is also dismissed, with just 1% of those questioned visiting a pub - the same number as those who had sex.

According to Eurest the current 27 minute lunchtime is an all time low. In 2000, for example, the average break was 36 minutes.

'The bottom line'

"As recently as 15 or 20 years ago people were taking a minimum of an hour for lunch and for some it was even longer," says Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, at Lancaster University Management School.

He believes workers' habits have changed because they have come under increasing pressure on a number of fronts.

Greater emphasis on profitability and productivity is perhaps the most significant change, with more people than ever judged according to their ability to meet targets, Prof Cooper says.

The railways and major utilities including gas, electricity and telephones have been privatised, adding to the number of workers who could be sacked if they are not making money.

People used to have longer breaks because "UK plc was not so Americanised, or obsessed with the bottom line. All the insecurity has created a problem," says Prof Cooper.

He also suggests technology has increased the burden of workers by adding to the number of tasks they need to complete - particularly answering e-mails.

"Even though people say they have a 27 minute lunch break there's a good chance they sit at their desk clearing their e-mails."

'Sneak out'

A steady decline in the number of people in unions is another major factor, says TUC policy officer Paul Sellers.

People don't walk out of the office at five, they don't want to say 'I'm off to lunch'
Professor Cary Cooper

A feeling of powerlessness among workers was further heightened by the recessions of the early 80s and 90s, he says.

Many people were forced to go the extra mile just to hang on to their jobs at a time when three million were unemployed, Mr Sellers suggests.

"It's a change in the power relationship and it's difficult to see the way back," he says.

The result has been that Britons now have the longest hours of any workforce in the European Union excluding Poland, he adds.

In all, bosses are getting 23bn a year in free overtime - with no sign that things are likely to change any time soon, the TUC says.

Prof Cooper agrees: "It's difficult to be brave in a job insecure culture.

"People don't walk out of the office at five, they don't want to say 'I'm off to lunch'. They sneak out to get something and sneak back. People try to show commitment by working through lunch and staying late."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I work in London in the city, nine times out of 10 I have lunch at my desk, eight times out of 10 I have dinner at my desk and five times out of 10 I have breakfast at my desk, not having left from the night before. At the most stressful times the idea of leaving your office for 25 minutes in a 36 hour period is laughed at.
James, England

Get a job in the City where a three hour boozy lunch is still considered work .....
Chris, UK

For me my family and my home life will always rank above loyalty to my firm. The fact that I take my lunch hour doesn't mean I do a bad job or lack commitment.
Lee Hadley, London, UK

Maybe there should be some work exchanges for exhausted UK workers to Barcelona. They work long hours here but have a 90-120 minute lunch break. I'm sure that it is more productive.
Iain, Spain

I think if people would take the time to unwind and come back after lunch with a fresh/clear head then they would produce more and improve their home life also. Maybe divorce rates would go down.
Melody, English in the US

Lunch is for wimps.
Ash Pattisson, London, UK

Funny, the restaurant I went to yesterday for a 90 minute lunch (including wine) was jam packed!
Zoe, Canary Wharf, London, UK

Workers can blame e-mail, but in my experience, many people spend a little time at lunch checking their personal e-mail and surfing the web for holiday deals, etc. So perhaps that time at the desk with a sandwich isn't "slaving away" in all cases.
Valerie, UK

The UK's "long hours culture" is a joke. Standard contracts in Hong Kong are for a six-day week. Five days is offered as a job perk! I have worked a contracted 72 hour week for employers before, people in the UK think they're hard done-by if the break into a sweat.
Steve, Hong Kong

One reason people stay at their desks over lunch is that they are reading about the latest survey on the internet.
Bill Bailey, UK

What is most annoying is the fact that although employees are often paid overtime, working through a lunch period is NOT considered overtime. Perhaps if companies had to pay people for the extra hours a greater appreciation of the lunch break would emerge.
Kevin George, UK

I work in an office a couple of miles out of town and it simply isn't worth taking a trip anywhere at lunchtimes. However, lunching at your desk (even if you are playing solitaire) means it's just too rude to ignore a ringing phone and, once answered, customers don't want to hear "I can't deal with that right now, I'm on lunch".
Shiz, Cheshire, UK

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