Stephen Jardine: Everyone deserves a decent lunch break

Staff allowed a lunch break are happier and more productive, writes Stephen Jardine.
Crowds gather at The Lindisfarne Festival 2015Crowds gather at The Lindisfarne Festival 2015
Crowds gather at The Lindisfarne Festival 2015

When was the last time you took a proper break at lunchtime? For more and more of us the mid-day meal means a sandwich in front of the computer or worse still, no lunch at all. This week an all-party group of MPs called for schoolchildren to be given a 75-minute lunch break every day to boost their physical and mental health. But if kids could benefit from this, what about the rest of us?

Twenty years ago I moved to France and started a job in Paris. On my first day, I popped out to the local boulangerie at 12.30pm and bought a ham and cheese baguette to eat for lunch at my desk. Judging by the reaction back at the office, it was clear I had broken the auld alliance. It turns out eating at your desk is uncivilised and revolting, or so I was told. Worse than that, it was a waste of a good meal.

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With that, the rest of the office left me alone to answer the phones for 90 minutes and that was my introduction to lunch in France. The next day I joined them and never looked back. Every restaurant and café nearby had fixed-price menus where you could eat well for not much more than price of a sandwich. But it wasn’t just about the food.

Children get a lunch break at school, but many adults end up eating a sandwich at their desk (Picture: John Devlin)Children get a lunch break at school, but many adults end up eating a sandwich at their desk (Picture: John Devlin)
Children get a lunch break at school, but many adults end up eating a sandwich at their desk (Picture: John Devlin)
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Lunch was where I discovered my boss was the son of a famous English cricket commentator and where the head of HR tipped me off about a great apartment that became my home. It was where I stopped being the new boy and became part of the gang.

Since then much has changed and France has also fallen victim to the desk-lunch culture. Paris even has Pret a Manger. Ready To eat doesn’t sound nearly as enticing, does it?

Here at home the amount of break-time during the working day has been declining for years as employers seek to increase productivity and employees remain at their desks to cling on to their jobs. But at what price?

Many workplaces have done away with canteens in favour of vending machines or simply leaving employees to fend for themselves at Greggs. Others have taken a different approach. Totally Delicious is a catering company offering a different solution to eating at work. With bright, attractive spaces and healthy, popular menus, they are working with a number of large employers and leading the fight back for a proper lunch.

“Our clients constantly tell us about improved communication and engagement among teams who enjoy eating food together in a modern environment during breaks. We receive constant feedback telling us how staff feel valued thanks to the fact their employers have provided a quality canteen space,” the company says on its website.

That won’t be an option for every company but even providing a communal eating space away from desks to eat a sandwich or food from home can provide benefits with research showing staff who take a proper break and socialise at lunchtime are happier and more productive in the afternoon. Safeguarding workers rights is going to be a major issue as Brexit unfolds.

Making sure we take a proper lunch break is a positive step we can all take right now.