I observed a curious phenomenon recently, at lunch in central London. Diners at every table had upturned phones beside their knives. Despite the babble, one could tell, from twitching hands and nervous glances, the attention of the patrons was not entirely on the people accompanying them. The devices hummed so often that I wondered how these people had become so conditioned to not switching off that they didn’t just take the plunge and stab the phones with the cutlery.
Then I received an email and lost my train of thought.
Though some say it’s a blessing for productivity and livers everywhere that lunches are less liquid than once they were, it seems that the time spent on them has become a lot more fluid — and that fluid is being sipped away at an alarming rate. The average lunch break is now down to a mere 29 minutes, according to a survey commissioned by Branston, and even that is punctuated not with fresh courses but regular servings of emails. The survey found the problem to be even more acute among home workers, who felt the need to forgo breaks so as not to seem lazy to overbearing superiors, as though their boss would presume they were skiving if they didn’t immediately reply to messages.
A Twitter post that went viral two weeks ago (which I found on my lunch break) tried to paint modernity as a dystopia by comparing the working calendar of today to that of the average medieval serf, who apparently worked just 150 days of the year. That stat is wrong, and what extra days they had were spent in church and avoiding death. But at least the peasants didn’t spend lunch with their lord popping his head through the hovel door every four minutes to ask how the turnip harvest was coming.
This was always going to be one of the problems of the modern world: productivity chipping away at the civilisation it built. The case for longer lunch breaks is everywhere. They allow workers decompression, to take stock of the first half of their day and reflect on how to approach the second. It helps guard against burnout, protecting against a deterioration in mental health. Improved morale and mental performance can only be beneficial. It also leads to healthier eating choices. People are more likely to take the time to choose better quality food if they know they have the time to lavish on it.
France, Spain and Italy, among others, have so normalised the extended lunch break that many of their shops don’t reopen in the afternoon. Though Montesquieu said lunchtime in Paris killed half the city, and dinner the other half, France has not yet collapsed into failed statehood. Italy’s economy isn’t as dynamic as the UK’s, but its people sure do live longer.
No one believes all problems can be solved by not working, but we know how much better we feel when rested, without the cortisol building up in our systems. Take it from me: I wrote this having not yet taken a lunch break today. Imagine how much wittier it might have been if I had.