On lunch

6 million workers in the UK do not take lunch breaks according to a study by BUPA, a health insurance company. 34% say this is because of pressure from managers, while 50% say it’s due to excessive workloads.

48% also say that without lunch their productivity drops around 3.00 pm, which leads to 40-minutes lost work worth around £50 million per day in lost productivity.

So time to roll this essay out once again…

Lunch. Let’s do lunch. Let’s skip lunch. Lunch is for wimps. It is fourteen years since Gordon Gekko made that last infamous announcement and yet ‘lunch’ is still a dirty word.

We need to eat; but we seem also to need to justify the time spent doing it. Sometimes we sit alone at our computer while we wolf a sandwich (extra points if purchased from an entrepreneur with a basket actually in the office). Sometimes we snatch a bite while we rush round doing the domestic errands that will allow us to stay later that night. Sometimes we miss lunch altogether: we jog to burn up calories (the absolute opposite); or we go to the gym to work out (work up?) aggression before plunging back into the dog eat dog marketplace. Anything, anything but simply having lunch and enjoying it.

Why? When, indeed, eating in the middle of the day is a natural and healthy moment to do so – sustaining energy, allowing digestion and feeding conversation.

It is an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, broadly speaking. Further south, societies have a stronger tradition of eating, and then resting, in the middle of the day. The day starts earlier, is broken by some hours in the afternoon, and then goes on later into the evening. The anthropological explanation of this is climatic: it is the heat which dictates, not the digestion. Except that, now that Anglo-Saxon capitalism is dominant, in city after European city the habit is beginning to die, as desks must be staffed until Tokyo has gone to bed and New York has woken up. Global capitalism has overridden variations in the global climate.

This new capitalism is lean, mean and very hungry. Back in the bad old days, when socialist sensitivities were keen, business lunches possibly earned a bad name. Fat cat capitalists sat late into the afternoon over brandy and cigars, while their workers toiled in satanic mills, only emerging late in the afternoon with pale, hungry faces and emaciated limbs.

But now bosses are thinner than shop-floor workers – they can afford more expensive gyms – and brandy and cigars. Business entertaining goes on, but water is the order of the ambitious lunchtime drinker, and the lunch – notoriously never free – must be justified by a concrete deal, a bottom line, a result.

Meals are significant social moments in all cultures. Meals have always attracted rituals and meanings. They used to be far more simply and recognisably significant in our own culture. The directors would have lunch in their own dining room, and would invite others to join them. Banks, shops and offices would close for lunch. Lunch was important. And it was important throughout the week. Sunday lunch involved all the family sitting down. Christmas dinner still does. In America there is Thanksgiving. In church there is the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper … meals are where we find much that is significant about how we live, what is changing, what is enduring.

Lunch is an interface. Lunch is where work meets people (where colleagues became friends before the days of motivational workshops and team bonding courses). Lunch is where people talk and people think. It is where the new economy meets a very ancient set of rituals and customs. How we approach lunch says a lot about our attitude to work, and work’s attitude towards us.

Lunch has been on a long downhill trek – from luncheon to something, which we snatch, shamefaced, alone. So what have we gained by downgrading lunch? What have we lost?

“I’m going for lunch.” Yes, but are you going for lunch to eat; or are you going to do the things that you do instead of lunching? In one sense the latter could be said to be fraudulent because this hiatus in the working day is there in order that the natural human need to eat should be met. But on the other hand we don’t want to eat. So we have turned lunch into something else, something broader – time out during the working day. And so employers negotiate about how long ‘lunch’ – and other breaks – should be.
Is the time taken at the employee’s expense, or the employer’s? If it is just used by the employee at will, then cannot employers reasonably argue that it should not count towards the working day? If it is used to eat, because an eight- or ten-hour stretch without food involves significant loss of efficiency towards the end, then cannot an employee regard that as benefiting the organisation? Lunch, in those circumstances, becomes a necessary concomitant of employing people at all – and the employer’s business.

This is lunch as a battleground. It suggests a workplace that is a battlefield. Investment banks are the new sweatshops, as much as the new call centres – only with bigger bonuses. So that’s all right then? In a free market and a free society people are able to choose what they do with the time when they could be eating. That canteen, lunch-break culture was so paternalistic, so patronising. Yet now market pressures seem to work only one way. They have eaten up lunch for the keen employee. Modern business culture has become as food-friendly as a plague of locusts.

Historically, many communities dedicated to a common end have distrusted meals. Under the Rule of St Benedict monks eat in silence, listening to readings from improving texts. (When do the readers eat? But then, when do waiters have lunch?)

The trouble is, eating is so charged. Rows over the family table. Class war fought with serried ranks of cutlery and fish servers. Meals are the traditional moment to betray your enemy under the guise of friendship: the invitation to break bread speaks of peace, but treachery often strikes. Dante puts traitors to their guests into the very lowest Hell.
It is a busy place.

And yet, we should nevertheless try to reclaim lunch for the new economy. Because, what is wrong with eating? Can’t we simply enjoy that necessary break in the working day, make a virtue out of the necessity, feed ourselves, replenish ourselves, come back to give it back to our work? A solitary sandwich maybe efficient but is it effective?

Everyone should think about lunch more. Employers should value employees as people who need to eat. Employees should value employers as people for whose sake – among others – they eat. And maybe the ritual meal, the nourishing meal, the creative meal, food not as a weakness but as collaboration, can come back into business. So, re-build the subsidised canteen, bring back the dinner ladies!

Perhaps, even, we could invite Dionysos back to the lunch table, to oil our ideas, give us a little courage to make that intuitive leap, speak up to the boss, help us to dare outline that off-the-wall idea. Of course, it would be dangerous, but it’s food for thought.

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