It is time to start a workplace campaign to Save Our LunchTimes.
Once we had lunch-breaks
In the last century – when I began my working life- lunch-times belonged to the workers. We could use this time to eat, drink, lie on the grass and chat, go shopping, keep fit or play sport, attend clubs and events – some of us even spent lunch-time with our children at the workplace nursey. But these days it feels as if lunch-time if belongs to our employer. It is now expected of us that we have ‘working lunches’, we attend ‘brown bag’ seminars where we bring our own sandwiches while we listen to work based speakers, we are ‘invited’ to lunch-time meetings .
Recently I have challenged two colleagues who have organised different work-based meetings during the lunch period – they did it deliberately, they argued, because there was no other time in the day when people were free attend the meeting; if they organised it at any other time few people would come. This suggests three things:
1. We have work overload.
2. Staff are hugely committed to doing a good job to the point of agreeing to be exploited.
3. It is expected that all the time from when we arrive at our place of employment until the time we leave should be spent in productive activity determined by our employer through the way our managers organise our time.
Effectively this means we no longer have the right to a ‘proper’ lunch-break - so a right to time when workers take a ‘break’ from work is not guaranteed each day. People are simply working all day – going from one meeting to the next and eating during those meetings that happen between noon and 2.00 pm. This is certainly a less visible way for the employer to extend working hours
From the employers’ point of view it seems that keeping people ‘at it’ all day gets more done than letting them have a break. This is what a piece of research by Charlotte Fritz argues. It might be true, but it seems to me that Charlotte misses the point, she presumes that lunch-breaks and coffee breaks exist for the interests of the employer: to make the workers more productive. If they don’t fulfill that function they should be abolished. She recommends instead that workers spend the time writing out to do lists, or seeking feedback on their work. Oh Dear I think I see lunchtime appraisals and self-criticism sessions just cresting the horizon.
On the other hand I think that lunch-breaks exist (or at least they should do) for the benefit of the worker taking them. There are many ways in which employers can squeeze more productivity out of their workers- certainly if they have no long-term responsibility for their workers’ wellbeing and they can simply replace workers when they are no longer maximally productive, abolishing breaks is one one of them. But we workers have other responsibilities to ourselves and our communities: and that means that we need to take back ownership of that short lunch period – reclaim that break from work during an 8 hour working shift, and do with it whatever pleases us.