The trouble with eating lunch at your desk

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital “Premium” edition every Thursday…

There are several risks and mental health impacts associated with not taking a lunch break, writes Kyle MacDonald.

Do you eat lunch at your desk? Or are you one of the fortunate few that is allowed (or allows themselves) a lunch break, or even a morning and afternoon tea break?

It might seem like a small thing, but increasingly it’s the little things I find myself thinking about when it comes to understanding the tidal wave of emotional distress, anxiety and stress so many find themselves under every day.

A family member of mine, who many years ago used to work as a lineman for Telecom has recalled to me how as a work group they would stop and take a lunch break together. Within their various vans would be 12v converters enabling them to use kettles, sandwich makers and various other appliances.

By setting up chairs and umbrellas lunch became a ritual. Not just of eating, but of connecting.

Now it is my understanding that the equivalent workers, on individual contracts to Chorus, work largely alone, required to jam as many jobs as they can into their day to make ends meet. No doubt many of them are deeply stressed, likely eating what ever they can when they get a chance.

Being fortunate enough to be self employed, I’ve always scheduled a lunch break. Space to reflect and time catch up with colleagues: for me it is a priority.

One aspect of this is eating mindfully. Doing so is one of the most simple ways to apply mindfulness to our day to day routines. It requires us to simply eat, to not rush each mouthful and actually taste the food.

Eating while also working at our desk puts us at risk of overeating, as we simply don’t pay attention to our appetite and our body’s signals that we are full.

It also cuts us off from the most basic of supports that we have in our day to day life: other people.

We largely have trade unions to thank for the existence of lunch breaks, along with mandated morning and afternoon tea breaks. Something so simple, that still has to be fought for.

These rights have gradually been chipped away at, including a bill introduced by the National-led government in 2014, removing the obligation for employers to provide breaks.

This was largely reversed by the current government in May this year, establishing a minimum for a typical eight-hour day, whereby workers are entitled to two paid 10-minute breaks either side of a 30-minute unpaid meal break.

We now know a lot about how levels of economic inequality are related to mental wellbeing, whereby less equal societies do less well on a whole range of social wellbeing measures. We also know that membership levels of trade unions and levels of equality are closely correlated: less union members, less equality.

And less time for lunch.

So if you’re able to stop eating lunch at your desk, please do. Eat with colleagues, go outside, eat in the sunshine, go for a walk. Your body and your mind will thank you.

And if you’re not allowed – or not able – to take a lunch break, then for the sake of your mental health, consider joining a union.

(Click here to read the article on the NZ Herald…)

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