There are two kinds of people who don’t take their lunch breaks: Martyrs and assholes. Martyrs work through lunch so everyone can see how hard working and devoted they are. Assholes are either lucky enough to love what they do so much that they simply want to keep working, relaxation be damned, or are people who are too inexperienced or weak willed to use the time. You’re all stupid: Take your fucking lunch break.
OK, OK, to be fair—if you’re not taking your break, it’s probably not your fault. Lunch has always been a slapdash affair since it took hold around the turn of the century. It’s an urban invention built around the fact that if you’re at work, you gotta eat, so make it as quick as possible and get back to it so you can stop losing the boss money.
What’s silly about it is that more than a century after its introduction, we work longer hours than ever, but fewer people take those breaks. Recent research found that only 1 in 5 people leave their desk or the office for a lunch break. NPR looked at the consequences of this practice, and it’s exactly what you’d guess: Sitting in one place all day long is bad for you—bad for thinking, bad for creativity, bad for productivity, bad for your body.
And here’s the thing: You don’t even have to eat during this break! Just take the fucking break! As workplace psychologist Kimberly Elsbach told NPR: “You just need to get out. And it doesn’t have to be between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to have a positive impact. It can be just going outside and taking a walk around the block. That in itself is really restorative.”
What’s wrong with us? Aren’t we hungry? Aren’t we tired? Don’t we just need to step out and grab a bite and look around for FIVE SECONDS and get some sun or fresh air before going back in, noses to the grindstone? Why are we so happy to deprive ourselves of this simple, everyday pleasure?
There are a handful of factors, according to NPR. We work longer, and more nonstandard hours, so there’s not common time anymore for everyone to hit the lunch counter. There’s a feeling that you’re supposed to be “forever available” at work now, too, which leads to a lot of desk eating.
And that feeling, more often than not, is vibes—the people at your work who make you feel like shit for doing it. Let’s examine that for a second, because I’m willing to be that once you take out martyrs, lucky assholes, and the fearful, what you have left are either colleagues or managers, typically both, who just make you feel guilty for taking a break, who never take one themselves, who create a culture of not taking lunch that then becomes standard, or worse, rewarded.
Barring the last handful of years of my working life, that experience was the norm for me. The first half of my working life, I worked service industry and fast food jobs where a half hour break and two 10s were the standard. When I finished college and got a professional, salaried job that required a degree, I was ecstatic to finally land that hour long break I’d dreamed about—hell, I might even browse a magazine.
Instead I made the mistake of going into an industry with a salaried job at a corporation but where employees were treated like shift workers (hint to English or journo majors: Never go into the press release copy editing biz). Lunch was something you were “entitled” to and told to take but somehow still never got. And the worst part of it all was that it was only a half hour.
There is perhaps nothing more insulting in the working world than a half-hour lunch break at a professional job. By the time you order something at the downstairs cafe and find a seat, and are served the greasy turkey and swiss croissant, you have approximately 12 minutes to inhale it and get back to your desk.
It was, of course, exacerbated by this bizarre martyr culture fed by everyone. There was always more to be done! The work piled up! There were crazy deadlines! No one else could do it! Look at me, working so hard I don’t even need to eat!
The company rewarded this thinking with performance bonuses and free pizza and other things that made it clear that the standard of excellence was never taking your lunch break. Everyone bought into it and suffered horribly. We all gained weight, and twentysomethings were routinely diagnosed with ulcers and various migraines, back problems, hemorrhoids and other ailments usually befalling older workers.
I wanted to complain! I did complain! But the standard had been set, and not going along meant you were lazy. It was my first job out of college and I did what I was told.
Eventually I escaped that industry, and have never looked back, instead moving into jobs where I was treated like an actual adult who required sustenance to continue producing. Lunch is now what it should be—maybe just a few minutes when I’m busy, but maybe longer when I’m not. But that’s not really the point: It’s getting a break when I need the break.
So start Monday. Go today. Take your fucking lunch break. Don’t sweat it. Don’t feel guilty. If anyone gives you guff, ignore it. And trust that although it can feel like the only office-approved way to look productive, it will burn you in the end. Plus, the office will get by just fine without you. As Alyssa Spatola wrote at HuffPo: “The world will not end because you ate a salad outside.”
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.