When I worked full-time at a magazine, I really worked overtime. My editor never told us explicitly, but it was implied that we were always expected to be ‘on.’ Emails were there to be checked. Phones should be answered. And because we were based in Sydney, doing interviews with celebrities often meant waking up at ungodly hours or staying up to chat to someone on the other side of the world.
All of this was expected for the love of the job. And we did love our jobs there. But the magazine industry is an infamous revolving door - so perhaps we would have loved our jobs more, and stuck around longer, if we were cut a little slack and allowed to take some time off every now and then. Say, between the hours of 1pm and 2pm daily.
One magazine editor is trying her best to make that happen. Amy Keller Laird, of Women’s Health in the US, launched #LeanInToLunch, a campaign to encourage people - but especially women - to take their lunch breaks every day. Research shows that only about 20 per cent of American workers leave their desks for their lunch breaks, and the figure is similarly bleak in Australia, where 2013 research showed that 3.8 million workers never took a lunch break. Of those who did, 72 per cent said they didn’t leave their desks to do it. The result? An exhausted, depleted workforce.
2013 research showed that 3.8 million workers never took a lunch break.
“We were doing a story about the unhealthy cycle of being addicted to work—where you feel stressed out when you’re NOT working—and one of the most interesting stats that we uncovered was that people who take breaks during the workday are actually much more productive at work,” says Keller Laird of how #LeanInToLunch got started. “I have always been someone who takes advantage of her lunch break—my coworkers have joked that I ‘peer pressure’ them into going to lunch. So we decided to make that idea our social campaign: #LeanInToLunch.” The idea? “Actually step away from your computer and take a walk or eat with a friend. Doing something even that simple has significant health benefits.”
She’s right. In the highly influential management tome The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of an axeman who continues to chop trees despite his blunt axe to describe our effectiveness when we don’t take a break. The lesson, “sharpening the saw,” is about stopping to breathe, learn and come back to work revived and refreshed.
Covey wrote, “Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.” Our attention spans for about 90 minutes - max - at a time (perhaps a reason why many films are about this long?) and taking frequent breaks sustains our energy and focus much better than ploughing on ever will.
So why do so many of us - particularly women - feel like taking a lunch break is career suicide? “I haven’t seen official stats on women vs men taking lunch,” says Keller Laird, “but my feeling is that, in general, women have felt the need to ‘prove’ themselves in the workplace more than men, especially women of child-bearing age. There is data supporting the idea that women who have kids or take their full maternity leave are sometimes passed over for promotions and not seen as dedicated as men with children. So all of this points to the hypothesis that, yeah, women probably do take fewer lunch breaks than men, because they’re always making sure they aren’t seen as undedicated.”
In general, women have felt the need to ‘prove’ themselves in the workplace more than men,
Keller Laird’s own staff initially baulked at the idea of taking a lunch break every day. One staff member told her editor that she wouldn’t be participating. “She was getting stressed out just thinking about it. Which is the entire point of the campaign!” But Keller Laird led from the top and made sure she was seen to leave her desk daily. “Employees need to know that it’s ok to take your lunch break - it doesn’t say anything about your dedication to work or your moral character. It simply says you’re a human who needs to eat and take a break.” One thing that helped get her staff out the door? Daily GIFs sent at 12.30, reminding them to get out and go.
So does it actually work? Does giving employees ‘permission’ to leave their desks for fresh air and sunshine help them come back energised? And does it make for a more flexible workplace all-round? “
Yes. There are always going to be times when you have to work late, and depending on what’s going on at your job at any given time, it might be necessary to check email once at night,” says Keller Laird. “But in general, yes, the idea of leaning in to lunch does extend to stepping away from the job when you’re on your own time. Without those nights and weekends to recharge, you can’t be a productive employee. So it actually behoves employers to allow their staffers to sign off at the end of the day.”
The Aussie workplaces leaning in to flexible culture
Need a new job? These offices are leading the way in flexible work.
- Atlassian: the software company offers fully-stocked kitchens, standing desks, yoga classes and fully-subsidised educational classes. Each year, every employee is gifted five days to work at a charity.
- Envato: dream of working from home? At Envato, employees are trusted enough to have unlimited ‘work from home’ days.
- Vinomofo: it’s a wine company, so of course Friday arvo drinks are a must. The generous company also “Vino-bombs” 10 people each month, giving those who do awesome work in the community parcels packed with wine and other treats.
- Vodafone: offers a four-day work, five-day pay scheme for primary carers returning to work after maternity leave (for the first six months).
- Tyro Payments: at this company (the alternate EFTPOS, if you like), there’s a strictly enforced 5pm finish. No need to tell us twice.
- Thoughtworks: the IT consulting company offers 18 weeks full pay for those taking maternity leave - three times the national average.
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