The Lunch Break Is Totally Overrated

Department of complaints.
April 24 2012 2:09 PM

I’d Rather Eat at My Desk

Why lunch breaks are totally overrated.

Woman eating at her desk.
What's so wrong about eating lunch at your desk?

ThinkStock.

Last week, Rachael Levy complained about people always eating at their desk.

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

Nothing in American office culture is more overrated than the lunch hour—the idea that it’s best to take an hour, get out of the office, and forget all that stress waiting for you back at your desk. I eat lunch at my desk almost every day. In fact, I love eating lunch at my desk so much that when I was refurbishing my home office recently, I bought a desk with a special pull-out section where I could lay a placemat and coaster—voila, a built-in dining area. It works so well that I’m eating my lunch at my desk as I write this.

Last week, my Slate colleague Rachael Levy wrote that we should embrace the French practice of taking long, leisurely lunches. Two-hour lunches might be fine in France, where the work week is all the way down to what … 28 hours? But here in America, where we strive to keep the wheels of the world economy turning, a lot of us work at least 40 hours a week. This handy chart from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that working Americans with kids spend more time working than anything else, even sleeping.

Average workday chart.
American time use survey, average workday chart.

Chart by Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Everything we might prefer to working is crammed into one- or two-hour slices: an hour to eat and drink, an hour devoted to “caring for others.” If you’re an office worker with a few kids, you first must wake up and endure a mad scramble to get everyone dressed and out the door—that’s an hour or two of non-quality family time. Then there’s the commute. If it’s 30 minutes each way, that’s another hour wasted. And then you work for eight or nine hours. If you take an hour for lunch, that’s just another hour that you’re not spending at home with your spouse and kids or at the gym. It’s another hour that you’re paying the sitter. With lunch, an office drone could leave home at 8 a.m. and not get home until 6:30 p.m. When are you supposed to cook dinner? How are you supposed to get to Little League on time?

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I love my job, and I love my co-workers. I really do. But I spend more time with them from Monday through Friday than I do with my husband or children. And even though I’m interacting with my colleagues by phone and via email—I work from my home in Ohio—my work day is intense and all-encompassing. I really don’t see the benefit of extending it by an hour just so I can break for lunch.

Here are the things I get to do because I usually cram my work day into the American average of eight to 8½ hours: I can read books or play a couple of extra games of Wii with my 5-year-old before my childcare arrives. I can mow through some housework so that at 9 p.m., when the kids are in bed and all is quiet, I can have a conversation or watch a movie with my husband, instead of fighting about whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. I can get my work done in time to haul my 8-year-old to swim-team practice. When all goes well and news isn’t breaking or broken, I can knock off on Friday night in time to grab a burger out and still have everyone in front of the TV for family movie night at a decent hour.

Yes, there are a few times a year I indulge in lunch at a restaurant with a friend, and it’s a treat. Or maybe I take an hour and get my dentist appointment out of the way, or make a trip to Target—to cross something off my to-do list so I don’t have to do it on the weekend. But most days, you’ll find me sitting contentedly at my desk, catching up on my reading or working on a project. Got a problem with that? Give me a break.