Over the past week I have felt irritable and hungry. Even worse, I’ve felt so overwhelmed that I have been thinking about quitting, well, everything. Taking a step back to evaluate what’s not working in my life, I realized that I’ve not taken a lunch break all week. That’s probably why I’ve been so hangry.
Today’s Food Finances Friday Feature continues the discussion of managing stress and creating work-life balance. Usually, no matter how busy a day I am having, I practice what I teach my trainees and my patients and prioritize self-care, which includes taking a lunch break.
The Endangered Lunch Hour
The American lunch “hour” has been shorted to 30 minutes or less for most employees, yet fewer than half of employees report they are even able to take that short of a break. For years, studies have found that only half of Americans take their lunch break.
This most recent finding was from a survey of 2,000 workers in June 2018 which found that of those who do take a lunch break, most focus more on their mental health than eating with 3/4 using the time to take a walk for the exercise, to clear their minds, get fresh air or de-stress.
The survey found that most of those who take a lunch break away from their desk come back feeling refreshed. Those who work through lunch reported feeling tired, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or exhausted.
Related Article: Preventing Burnout
A Case for Lunch
Much of the attention is given to what people do outside of work to manage their work stress. However, given the amount of time we spend at work, researchers in the area of work recovery suggest that it’s important to consider ways we can replenish our resources during the workday. Having some control over what we do during lunch breaks is one such way.
Some of my colleagues are so strapped for time that they pay delivery charges (plus tip) for food from a restaurant that is across the street from our work. It’s just a few minutes walk away!
In recent years, I learned to block off time for lunch. During my break I step outside, and take a walk with a friend. I take bites of my salad, nuts, and/or fruit when I can between patients. But when my stress is well managed and I get out for a walk, I am not that hungry.
Effects After One Week with No Break
Yet last week, I took a break zero times. On the first day I noticed a difference. When I got home that evening my legs were swollen. They remained swollen throughout the week. Even though I did go jogging and swimming in the evenings, it wasn’t enough to combat being sedentary for 9 hours straight, 5 days a week.
In addition to the physical changes, I noticed I was also dreading going into work each morning. This was something I haven’t felt in years. Throughout the day I was cranky and at night I was easily annoyed by my family. I realized that (with the exception of the few minutes a day I see my husband) that time over lunch with my friend is the only time I get to talk with someone other than one of my patients or children.
Finally, I noticed myself being hungrier than usual. With stress comes cravings. My usual salad and nuts weren’t cutting it. For the first time in months I was craving pizza. Although I controlled that urge, by the end of the week I gained two pounds from the combined increase in distress and decrease in daily physical activity.
Who knew that taking even a short break during the workday had such a tremendous impact on my physical health and mental wellbeing.
Related Article: Simple Steps to Better Health
Why Wasn’t I Taking A Break?
Of the past 7 workdays, I had meetings three of the days, scheduled a patient over lunch one day, and it was raining on a fifth day. The other two days, I was feeling so overwhelmed with work and thought I would work through lunch so that I could leave on time.
I’ve realized that the days I am feeling stressed are the days that I need to take a break. Attempts at work are largely unproductive, and the more stressed I get the more hungry I feel.
But if I take a break, when I return I am more efficient with my work and present with my patients. And when I get home, I am more pleasant toward my family.
Related Article: How Much Is Stress Costing You?
Since starting at my position years ago, no one mentioned when my lunch time is or encouraged me to take a break. Just the opposite: I am frequently asked to give presentations or attend meetings over the noon hour. Just today my supervisor asked my team if we are available for a training one day at noon.
No one is going to set boundaries for me, and frankly it’s not their job. It’s up to me to set my own boundaries.
I can make the choice to block off my lunch break, just as I protect my clinic time. Stop scheduling patients over lunch. Say ‘no’ when asked whether I’m available during my only 30 minute break. Commit to go for a walk rather than catching up on work. Each of these decisions are up to me.
Related Article: How to Start Decluttering Mental Clutter
This morning, I was apprehensive about going into work. When I arrived, I received a call from a patient who had to cancel. I thought about using that time to prepare what I was to present at tomorrow’s lunchtime meeting or catch-up on my never-ending administrative work. But no. I made the conscious decision to reach out to my friend to ask if she had time to go for a walk. Today was the best day I had in two weeks.
How do you spend your lunch break?