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Some employees feel guilty about taking a lunch break despite federal rules

A study revealed that it’s not always related to productivity

Photo (c) Oko_SwanOmurphy - Getty Images
Though many consumers are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from Staffordshire University are exploring the psychology behind employees taking their lunch breaks. 

They learned that many employees skip out on their daily break time for any number of reasons. While staying busy and productive does come into play, the researchers also found that some employees feel self-conscious about taking breaks if their colleagues aren’t doing the same. 

“The legally required minimum time for a lunch break at work is 20 minutes, however there is a growing trend nationally for large numbers of people not to take breaks at work, with surveys reporting that between 66 percent and 82 percent of workers don’t always take their breaks,” said researcher Dr. Mike Oliver. 

“So, how have we got to the point where some people feel guilty about taking their legally allowable break? We were curious to look at the psychological and social behaviours of office workers to understand the enablers and barriers.” 

Why are breaks disappearing?

To better understand the culture behind taking or skipping lunch breaks, the researchers conducted several focus groups, each with nearly 30 office employees in the U.K. 

The researchers learned through interviews that there’s more to the debate than many may realize. Several different components come into play when employees are deciding to step away from their work for part of the day; however, a common theme emerged: having co-workers’ support in taking a break led employees to put work down for lunch. 

“We found that one of the best ways to make sure that you take breaks is to take them with your work colleagues, or to be encouraged to take them by your boss,” said Dr. Oliver. “If they are not physically near you, we may find it harder to act on these social prompts.” 

However, the researchers also learned that co-workers’ decisions can have an adverse effect. Just as co-workers can help encourage each other to take a break for lunch, many of the employees noted that the opposite was also true -- they were less likely to take a break if their co-workers weren’t taking that time. 

Issue of productivity

The study also revealed that many employees prioritize their work over taking a break, and this typically stems from nerves over what to do when lunch time happens. Many workers want to take the time to themselves but don’t want to appear as though they’re not productive or valuable employees. 

These findings are troubling to the researchers for several reasons. Not only can sitting at a desk for extended periods of time be troublesome for consumers’ health, but having time throughout the day to talk or think about things outside of work is a respite that all employees need. 

“This paper highlights the complex relationships that people have with taking breaks, with others and their physical environment,” said Dr. Oliver. “Some participants did not recognize the importance of taking a break in the middle of the day, but others appeared to convince themselves that by doing a less intense work activity, such as responding to emails, whilst eating lunch at their desk, would actually be taking a break.” 

“There is mounting concern about the amount of time people spend sitting down at work and not being physically active, so it is really important that people don’t put work ahead of breaks and their own physical and psychological health.”  

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