In successful economies people take lunch breaks


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.''


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.