Whether you're working from home or in an office, we're all guilty of skipping a lunch break or just wasting the time on social media. I hold my hands up to years of not moving from my desk as I cram a sandwich down my throat and attempt to keep working through emails. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that I entered the workforce when we were already knee-deep in the recession. That time of endless pressure and watching as many took voluntary redundancy around me. While my job may have been safe, it also meant that I was forced to take on the workload of those around me. It wasn't an unfamiliar story to those first starting out in the industry, but quickly meant a lunch break was a thing of the past.
It was only after around 18 months of doing this non-stop when I finally cracked and realised how unhealthy it was. This mindset of working until you were broken just wasn't good for the quality of work you produced, or for the staff. Ever since that job, I have placed a real importance on my work/life balance. I refuse to work myself into the ground, and I refuse to work extra hours unless they are compensated in some form. It all comes down to setting boundaries and I think that's an important skill we learn as we go through life. Being strong enough to draw your limits and enforce them is one of the most valuable skills you can learn.
Why is working overtime in your lunch break so bad?
The big issue I have with this is that what can easily start as a one-off favour, can quickly turn into a pattern of behaviour. I know a lot of people who easily slip into these patterns – and I was once one of these people. Perhaps you have a meeting that overruns, or no time for a proper break between customers, so you sacrifice 10 minutes, then the next day it's 20 minutes. Before you know it, you're taking a 10 minute lunch and working an extra 50 minutes per day. when you add that up, you're working an extra 4 hours per week unpaid. You will never get this time back. By the end of the year, you will have worked an extra 9 days – unpaid and unclaimed.
Don't forget that in the UK – every worker is entitled to take a 20 minute break for 6 hours of work. Most companies will give a 30 minute/1 hour break for 8 hours of work. Find out exactly what you are entitled to and don't be afraid to enforce it. If you are being asked by bosses to work through breaks without getting the time back – speak to human resources or to your line manager to discuss the issue.
How to manage your lunch break:
Working in an office
You will work in one of two types of company:
- Set hours, rigid structure, set times for lunch breaks and to start/finish work (e.g shift work, teaching)
- Flexible working structure – you can set your own working times and breaks
Sticking to set hours
If you work in the first type of company, it is important that you follow the structure both during working times but also around the breaks. They are there for a reason – it's not normal to work 8 hours without a break. Humans don't function properly without a chance to rest and refuel. Don't think that you are the exception – there's no such thing. By telling yourself to push through you are simply stepping closer to burnout.
If you get an hour for lunch – take it and enjoy a break to eat, take a walk and get outside. It can be annoying if you are forced to take these breaks and can't instead take back the time. But if that's not an option, just enjoy the time instead of slipping into unhealthy patterns.
Choose your working hours
Those working in the second type of company will have a little more flexibility over working times. For instance, I previously worked with a great German company who were very focused on staff maintaining a good work/life balance. We had the option to work remotely, which I did from the UK for six months and several times while based in Germany also.
We also had a window of working hours – we could start anytime between 8-10am and finish anytime between 5-7pm. As an early riser, I used to come in at 8am and work until 5pm, with an hour for lunch which gave me plenty of time to eat, socialise and go on a long walk. So if you have this option – choose the hours that work best for your lifestyle and arrange your lunch break around that – many people I worked with preferred to start later and take 30 mins for lunch instead.
Working from home
Working remotely is the way of the future for a lot of people and many companies worldwide are finally catching up with this movement. But as with anything, a new way of working means we have to adapt our habits and mindsets. Working from home takes a great deal of responsibility and accountability. Honestly? Not everyone can do it. But just as it is important to take responsibility for getting your work done, you must take responsibility for closing that laptop when you're done. It's 10x harder to not bring your work home when you actually work from home!
As someone who has worked remotely for several years – my best advice is to get yourself a routine. Still get dressed and schedule stuff as though you were in an office. This will encourage you to actually take a break at lunchtime. I always like to throw on some joggers and go for a long walk or run, get some sunshine and fresh air before eating lunch. Usually, I take a minimum of 30 minutes depending on what I'm doing that day/meetings. I usually prefer to take a shorter 30 minute lunch and then work shorter hours overall. Getting out and active helps me to break up the day and gives me something to look forward to.
Changing your attitudes towards work
A big part of this change is shifting your own attitudes towards working. I know that some of my earlier jobs really gave me this mindset that I needed to give 200% and really work myself into the ground until I was exhausted. That was neither healthy, not productive. It meant the quality of work always suffered in the race to get everything done. I have a lot of respect for companies that are changing perspectives and are realising that people need more balance. It took some horrible working conditions to realise this for myself and to change my priorities when it came to my career.
But I'm glad I did this because my last few jobs have been amazing and have really been for companies that have valued me both as a worker and as a person. I'm lucky to have the privilege of being picky about employers – I know many people are not so lucky. But if you are in the same position, I urge you to think carefully about what you expect from an employer. More importantly, about what support you deserve from an employer. It's that age-old saying – if you don't ask, you don't get. So if you don't raise your standards and expectations, how can you ever expect to get more from your job?
10 ways to make the most of your lunch break
There are countless ways to make the most of that lunch hour, but here are some of the ones that have had the biggest impact on my mental health. Try them and see if they work for you!
Always get away from the computer screen
If you work in an office – this makes a huge difference. Humans were never meant to be sitting hunched over a computer screen all day long. It's not healthy or good for you. So give your eyes a break and go for a walk. This is a great time to get some fresh air and refresh your mind after too many emails. I always used to make sure I would go for a good walk around the older part of the town centre and the river – it was great to get out of the office. I would always return feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work. This also works great from home and I still do this daily – I just head to the woods/fields instead.
Be more mindful about your time
It's so easy for us to throw away this time instead of taking the time to slow down, appreciate and savour it. When we're always in a rush to get on with the next thing, it can suddenly mean hours have escaped us. If there's one thing that will really make you enjoy life more and feel happier overall – it's mindfulness. Try leaving the soggy sandwiches and Cuppa Soup behind and instead batch cook some lovely healthy lunches on Sunday. This gives you great food to look forward to and means you are more likely to slow down and enjoy. When eating, think about the food, don't rush yourself and instead savour the dish. Try using the time to think about what you are grateful for – this has been proven to improve mindset and mood.
Treat yourself to a pamper
If you're having a busy or tiring week, it could be a great time for some pampering. Perhaps you don't ever get time to treat yourself, so squeezing a manicure, pedicure or even a hair cut into a lunch break can be a lovely thing to do. I used to squeeze my 45 minute wash, cut and blow dry into my lunch break and would still have time for a sandwich! Plus then you can breeze back to the office feeling super glam.
Get some exercise
Depending on where you work – this might be a brisk walk or even a run on your lunch break. Or, if you're near a gym or somewhere that offers classes, you could pop along for a lunchtime swim or yoga class. I know some bigger offices even offer these in-house which is lovely! I used to do morning yoga classes at one workplace which was great, and sometimes when I work from home I will squeeze in a lunchtime HIIT class. It's a great way to give yourself an rush of energy and to flood your body with endorphins for the afternoon. Plus then you have a free evening ahead when you don't need to squeeze in a workout!
Tick off your to-do list
If you really don't feel you need a lunch break and would prefer to work, but aren't allowed. Why not get productive and use your lunch to tick off some of those to-do's? I always call these days "life admin" days. When perhaps I have to pop to the bank, or the post office, I have odd jobs that I need to finish off. I used to sometimes use my lunch breaks for creating content for this blog if I was feeling creative. Or you could even do your weekly food shop – whether you're near a supermarket or you do it online for delivery. It's a great way to tick off a boring job and to give yourself more free time outside of work.
A little bit of retail therapy
So much of our shopping is done online these days, but if you fancy a new top, skirt or lipstick, why not pop to the shops? There's something nice when you usually do everything online about actually shopping for products in-store. You could spend time trying on clothes or testing foundation shades. Or you could even shop for items for your home and pick up some new bits.
Meet up with friends
If you work nearby your friends, or even work with them, you could plan a friends date! Some of the girls I used to work with in an office would regularly organise a lunch date. We would head to a lovely cafe for cake and to chat about our lives outside the office. It was always so much fun and felt like we'd had double the time away by the time we got back to our desks. Why not plan a coffee date with your bestie or even just browse the shops together. Years ago when we were 16 and poor, my best mate and I used to meet up and eat our sandwiches at the back of the buildings we worked in.
Plan a date
If you're in a relationship with someone who works different hours to you. It can mean you're limited on the time you get together. My ex-boyfriend and I had this issue. So we started to organise weekly coffee dates together where we could just spend an hour together. It doesn't need to be anything fancy, sometimes it's nice just to catch up on the week. Likewise, if you're doing long-distance or coffee shop dates aren't an option, why not schedule a Facetime?
Learn a new skill
If an hour feels like too long for a lunch break and you want to fill the time – why not try a new skill? I'm currently working on learning Spanish and can easily spend 20-30 minutes practicing each day. Or, in the past some friends and I have learnt to knit thanks to a lovely colleague of ours. You could do this independently, or as a group, and start trying something you've always wanted to do. Or just grab a camera or a sketchbook and start teaching yourself new skills. It's easy to find a how-to guide and a Youtube video online about pretty much every topic so you can always find the basics.
Escape with books, podcasts or visit an exhibition
If you like to escape in your own little world and enjoy some time to yourself – this is perfect for you. Why not find yourself a good book, audio-book or a podcast? It will give your eyes a break from the screen and you can escape for a while into another world. If you work somewhere central, you might have access to free museums or local exhibitions. This could be great if you fancy getting out and seeing something new. Cities are great areas for this kind of thing. There is always something going on so always check What's On Guides.
How do you make the most of your lunch breaks? Have you got any good tips for ways of filling that lunch hour?