In successful economies people take lunch breaks

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Photo: Jake Curtis

An email came through the other day from a friend of mine living in Hong Kong. She was frazzled and tired, in the midst of planning her move back home and ultimate repatriation, but something she said jumped out. It was about a moving company she's dealing with and the response she got when she called them, a response she was, essentially, outraged by; 'can't talk now, we're on our lunch break. Call back later.' The response may as well have been 'eat shit', such was its unexpected and unappreciated nature. A lunch break? They were on their lunch break. Seriously? A sizeable, global business had popped the 'closed' sign on the door for their lunch break?

Fair point. I remember when I first moved to Europe, being continuously irritated that my bank closed for lunch, the one time a day I could actually get away from work and do my banking. And it took me a while to train myself to check the fridge for milk and other necessities on Saturday because I wouldn't be able to get them on Sunday unless I wanted to go to a petrol station. I mean, what company or institution shuts down for a lunch break in 2013? The ones who are still stuck in 1955. Or, you know, one of Germany's biggest banks. Their university administration offices. Many of their governmental offices. Their city halls. Many of Switzerland's banks and post offices close for lunch. Spain as a country pretty much clocks off for an afternoon kip. And this whole closed on a Sunday schtick? That's something my Nan reminisces about. But as a general rule of thumb, most of Europe knocks off on a Sunday.  Laws differ from country to country in terms of what kind of shops are allowed to open and for how long, with most cities that allow shops to open only doing so if they are tourist centres. In many countries, like Norway and Belgium, whether you can open on a Sunday or not depends on the floor size of your shop. Some cities, like Berlin, ration out the amount of Sunday a year your are allowed to open - as of 2013, it's ten in Berlin. Conversely, Sunday trading in New South Wales is largely unregulated, except by the consumer's expectation which is Sunday is no different to any other day. And Victoria was the first to wow the nation with the concept of 36 hour round-the-clock Christmas shopping.

This idea of being open and available for consumption 24/7, is one unique to a culture driven by instant gratification and mass consumerism. That old more, more, more, now, now, now attitude. It fits beautifully with our need to be busy, with that huge premium we place on constantly being on the go, doing something, being somewhere. This lifestyle we have constructed, one that values constant activity, constant engagement and devalues time off, downtime or just time spent not doing much at all, means we work long hours and require Westfield and Woolworths and Coles and Kmart need to be open for when we can squeeze them into our schedules, be that at 9pm on a Thursday or 4pm on a Sunday.  And of course, say it with me now; time is money and money is time.

But is time money? Does everything being constantly available around the clock really plump up the tills and keep the economy ticking? Last year, the top five countries that work the fewest hours in the world were all wealthy, economically sound European countries. Germany came in at number one, followed by The Netherlands, France, Austria and Belgium. Make that more than economically sound – Germany is the beating heart of the EU's economy.  A 2012 OECD report found they work an average of 1, 330 hours a year, which is an average of 25.6 hours a week. That's essentially half of what Greece averages. This low number is in part explained by a higher than average amount of part time and temporary workers, but check this out: ''5.14% of Germans work more than 50 hours a week, less than half the 10.86% of Americans who worked that much in 2011. The average German had 15.31 hours a day to devote to leisure, one of the highest figures among OECD countries. '' It isn't, as the Germans say, how many hours you work, it's what you do with those hours (that whole efficient stereotype? Not without grounds, not without grounds.) As for The Netherlands, ''Workers in the Netherlands enjoy low levels of unemployment, high incomes and one of the smallest proportion of employees working 50 or more hours a week .'' And the French? They ''embrace their leisure hours, devoting a (daily) average of 15.33 hours to personal time, the fourth highest of the OECD countries reported.''

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A few years ago, the Australian government had to launch a campaign to get Australians to take their leave. To, one could say, embrace their leisure time. For a country that loves being outdoors and for whom sport is part of our national identity, we're not very good at embracing our leisure time. There seems to be a stigma associated with using leave in Australia, or working shorter hours, as if it exposes you as a non-busy, empty-scheduled slacker. We're right in the thick of the busy trap, labouring under this idea of the more we work, the more valuable and important we are as people. The more time we spend at our desk, perhaps ultimately the more we'll earn and then we'll be even happier and more important. But, quite arguably, it's the very reverse. Shorter but more efficiently spent work hours, leaving more time to spend with family, friends, partners or indeed just oneself; regulated one day a week less of time spent consuming; and annual leave taken and well spent. Perhaps that's a better recipe.

Oh and take your lunch break, for God's sake. Go. Now.

13 comments

  • How refreshing to read this. It is an issue my family, friends and I have often discussed as it really seems to be getting out of hand. The last couple of places I worked at it was definitely looked down upon if people took a full one hour lunch break, you were supposed to stuff your lunch in your mouth during a spare ten minutes while still sitting at your desk and taking leave was equally bad. I became a little defiant about this and started leaving the office for exactly one hour for lunch and although my boss made it clear he didn't like it, he couldn't say anything. I guess I wasn't aiming for a raise or promotion or anything though, it was just an in-between-things job which I left pretty quickly. Funnily enough my boss didn't want me to go.

    I am also very tired of this notion that anybody who takes breaks, leave or keeps their weekend schedule relaxed and open is a slacker or a loser. I am not at all impressed with people who unnecessarily work 60 hours weeks and rush from one appointment to another on weekends, to me they just appear like maladjusted workaholics with no real perspective on life. The workaholic is always the least fun person in the office and I believe they are often quite ineffective too because they are so darn tired and stressed.

    As always, when you are on your death bed, will you really be saying you wished you worked more and rushed around on weekends more?

    Commenter
    Get some perspective
    Date and time
    September 09, 2013, 10:14AM
    • "Oh and take your lunch break, for God's sake. Go. Now."

      So....you'll be hiring all those people who get fired in Australia because of your advice, then?

      Work and business have as much to do with appearance and culture than actual work. In Australian business culture, you can be as efficient as you want, but unless people 'think' you're an effective worker, then the reality doesn't matter. Our culture emphasises appearance of results and work as much as actual results.

      If you're a boss, then feel free to change this in your company, but asking the average worker to disregard this culture is asking them to be valued less and be seen as less efficient and more expendable.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 1:01PM
      • Deliver the results in less hours. Make out like your slack, secretly beaver away and complete your tasks, and hope your boss is stupid enough to want to humiliate you in public (the more people that are there the better). Nothing works better than surpasssing expectations. If you are an efficient worker you need to make a point of not being around or on call all the time AND you need to deliver the goods. If you are good, someone will notice you, and more likely than not it will be someone higher than your boss ;-)

        Commenter
        Misha
        Location
        Tumbi Umbi
        Date and time
        September 09, 2013, 2:26PM
      • Very true DM, it is all about appearances. It doesn't matter as much what you do/produce, as much as being glued to your seat and looking haggard and harassed, there before everyone else and after they all have left.

        Middle & upper management love seeing that, they think it shows they're doing a great job keeping their underlings under control & productive.

        Commenter
        True
        Date and time
        September 09, 2013, 2:38PM
      • I don't think it sends a good message to tell people they can get fired for taking their lunch break.

        Commenter
        melissakp
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 09, 2013, 2:53PM
    • Cause and effect.

      They aren't successful because they take lunch breaks, they take lunch breaks because they are successful.

      Commenter
      expert on everything
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 1:28PM
      • DM,

        So true, especially the part about perception is reality, valuing "activity" over actual work done. I've lost count of the number of workplaces Ive been in over the years who promote the wrong people, give the wrong tasks to staff members and generally make really poor decisions...until there is widespread psychometric testing criteria in managerial recruitment, I suspect this trend will continue in Aussie businesses, and we'll all be worse off because of it.

        Commenter
        Tufluv
        Date and time
        September 09, 2013, 1:43PM
        • Thank you DM. I work in HR and am constantly being told by management to berate employees for lack of productivity. What they mean is people are not chained to their desks. Manager even asks how long people have been in the toilet. So, the employee cannot change these perceptions. It has to come from the top.

          Commenter
          Caz
          Location
          Manly
          Date and time
          September 09, 2013, 3:03PM
          • Yes I'd definitely be following Spain's example, great economy - did you hear they just got given the Olympics because of how awesome their economy is? No? You're saying they got rejected because their economy is a basket case?

            The Spanish have very long lunch breaks, all day in fact, it's called unemployment.

            Commenter
            Chris
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 09, 2013, 3:06PM
            • A good article. In Finland (where I work) and other Nordic countries, most people take a lunch break and leave the office. These countries are among the world's most efficient and have the highest living standards and best performing economies. They also have long holidays - 5 weeks in Finland's case, which everybody takes and usually uses at their holiday cottage in the countryside or skiing in the winter, well away from work. Finland is near the top of the efficiency and productivity table in terms of out put per hour and per person employed per annum. One of the many myths propagated by ignorant commentators in Australia is that long work hours mean higher output. It doesn't, as the data shows. Taking breaks makes you more efficient at work.

              Commenter
              Christopher Lloyd
              Location
              Helsinki
              Date and time
              September 09, 2013, 3:35PM

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