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The case for asking for a two-hour lunch break at work

Shot of a young woman checking her watch and having a salad while working from home
Some 41% of Brits admit to being more likely to work through their lunch breaks now they’re working from home. Photo: Getty

For those of us who have long sought greater flexibility at work, the shift to home-working has been a silver lining of the pandemic. We’ve replaced sweaty morning commutes and supermarket meal deals with a leisurely transition to the kitchen table, where we are able to work an arm’s length from the fridge.

In theory, remote working should mean a better work-life balance. However, a survey of 2,000 people by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation found the average worker is putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime a month while working from home during the pandemic. Worryingly, more than half of those surveyed (56%) said that they felt “more anxious and stressed” about work than they did before COVID-19 hit.

Even away from the watchful eye of our bosses, we’re also taking fewer breaks. According to new research by Liberty Games, 41% of British people admit to being more likely to work through their lunch breaks now they’re working from home.

Taking a long lunch may seem like a certain way to get behind in your work, but the practice can actually boost your output when you return. And at the moment, a two-hour lunch break may be a better way to boost productivity, motivation and wellbeing in these trying times.

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Many workers in the UK would scoff at the idea of taking a two-hour break in the middle of the day, but in France, it’s not uncommon to have a leisurely break. In a 2016 survey of its employees by corporate services firm Edenred, 43% of French respondents took 45 minutes or more — the highest percentage of 14 countries surveyed.

So what are the benefits of a two-hour lunch break, rather than eating al desko? And are employers likely to allow workers to take a chunk of time off in the middle of the day?

Firstly, taking a longer lunch break is one of the best ways to boost productivity and refresh cognitive function in the afternoon. Not only does it give us psychological distance from the task we are working on, time away from a complex problem gives our brains the space to mull an issue over and come up with ideas and solutions.

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We might be temporarily focused on something else — like eating or exercise — but our minds are likely still processing the information we were thinking about before.

Our brains also need periodic breaks to recover from mental fatigue. Sitting at a desk and typing might not be physically exhausting, but working on projects, answering emails, processing information and making decisions requires a lot of focus — which can be cognitively tiring.

Therefore, a decent lunch break can help prevent an unproductive, mid-afternoon slump, while boosting our energy levels. In 2018, a survey of 1,600 US adults found 20% of workers worried their bosses would think they weren’t hardworking if they took regular lunch breaks, but 90% said taking a break helped them feel refreshed and ready to get back to work.

In the long, dark winter months of lockdown, taking a longer lunch break also allows workers who work 9-5 to spend more time in daylight. Shorter days have always been a trigger for people with seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern and leads to low mood, lethargy and a general loss of interest or motivation.

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Getting as much natural sunlight as possible can help ease the symptoms of SAD, but our traditional working hours makes this more difficult. In addition, the pandemic has led to an increase in risk factors too, such as social isolation, anxiety and spending more time indoors.

However, asking for a longer break during the day can be easier said than done. With so many people facing redundancy or income loss, many of us are feeling pressured to work harder than ever to prove our worth to our employers.

According to the LinkedIn research, almost half of those surveyed (47%) admitted to pretending to be busy while working from home, over fears they could lose their job if not.

Furthermore, a quarter said they felt under pressure to respond to requests more quickly than normal — and “stay online” and contactable beyond the end of the working day.

Yet asking for a longer lunch break doesn’t mean working fewer hours. If your employer is an advocate of flexible working, they may be open to allowing you to work an extra hour in the morning or in the evening, to make up for the lost hour in the day. And if a two-hour break seems unlikely, taking a proper break away from your screen is still important for your health and wellbeing, as well as your ability to work effectively.

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