And today in news that is simultaneously sobering, unsurprising, and outrage-inducing, we have this: According to a survey by Tork, a company which makes paper goods like napkins and paper towels, millennials are afraid to take lunch breaks at work — and the reason why is what makes the whole thing so awful. We don’t take lunch breaks because we’re afraid we’re going to be perceived as less productive, less hard-working, and generally weaker employees if we do so. You heard me: Our work culture is such that we worry that doing something literally required to keep us alive will hurt our professional reputations and advancement if we’re on the clock while we do it.
No matter how you feel about generational differences between baby boomers and millennials, that’s extremely not OK. People need to eat!
Between Dec. 4 and Dec. 12, 2017, Tork worked with the research firm KRC Research to survey 1,600 employees across the United States and Canada, asking them questions about employee engagement, productivity, job satisfaction, and, of course, the subjects of lunch breaks, according to a press release. The respondents covered the baby boomer, Gen X, and millennial generations, with millennials — arguably the most, uh, wibbly of generations — being defined as those who were between the ages of 18 and 35, or born between 1999 and 1982, when they completed the survey.
It’s perhaps worth noting that these dates are actually somewhat counter to the current convention when it comes to identifying millennials; as of January 2019, the Pew Research Center defines millennials as those born between the years of 1981 and 1996 — an age range that many news organizations now use, as well. The years Tork used are still relatively close to those typically used to define the generation, though, so… I’m willing to roll with it.
Anyway, what the survey found is that millennials are almost three times more likely than boomers to feel that they’d be judged negatively by their co-workers if they actually, y’know, took a lunch break on the regular. One in four millennials worry that their boss will see them as less hard-working if they take a lunch break, compared to just one in 10 boomers. 62% of millennials also wish they had longer or more regular lunch breaks — a sentiment only 46% of boomers echoed — and, perhaps most notably, 16% of millennials would actually take a 10% pay cut in exchange for being able to take a lunch break every day. (That’s apparently almost twice the percentage of Gen Xers and over three times the percentage of boomers who said the same thing.)
I… cannot be the only person who feels that being able to break for lunch should be a given, not a perk, right? People do need to eat in order to function, as well as take breaks to let their brains recharge. It’s harder for us to focus when we’re hungry; what’s more, according to a survey published by the Draugiem Group in March of 2019, employees are dramatically more efficient workers when they take regular breaks. Knowing this, you’d think that lunch breaks would be championed in the workplace, rather than demonized — but that’s apparently not the case.
Now, it’s worth noting that this survey should probably be taken with a grain or two of salt: It’s essentially part of a publicity campaign for Tork, described in the press release as “an Essity brand and the maker of nearly half of the napkins used in the food service industry in the U.S.” Encouraging people to “take back the lunch break” also encourages people to use more napkins, so even if the data is sound, its very existence is still part of an agenda.
What’s more, if millennials feel that they’d be judged negatively for breaking for lunch, it might be because we actually, uh, judge people negatively for breaking for lunch ourselves: According to the survey results, nearly a third of bosses who are also millennials said that they do consider employees who take regular lunch breaks to be less hard-working than those who don’t. In comparison, only 15% of bosses who fall under Gen X said the same thing.
But then again, this view may largely be a result of having been raised in a culture that has made us into what Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed News recently coined the “Burnout Generation” — that is, due to changing work norms and American businesses becoming “more efficient [and] better at turning a profit,” we’ve faced an environment previous generations have not. Wrote Petersen, “We couldn’t just show up with a diploma and expect to get and keep a job that would allow us to retire at 55. In a marked shift from generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.” This “optimization” has manifested in such habits as never taking the paid vacation that comes as part of our benefits packages, feeling compelled to be available for work 24/7, and — yes — not taking breaks, including lunch breaks.
Will one survey by a napkin company help break the stigma fostered by our current work culture? Probably not. Heck, in my own past experience as a salaried worker, not even managers expressly telling me that they wanted me to make time for myself to have breaks actually translated to me, uh, taking breaks — there was always just too much to do. But at the same time, it’s… a start. Identifying that there’s a problem in the first place is the first step to making a change geared towards solving it, so even knowing that we have these tendencies might do some good. We know our work culture is unhealthy; this stigma against lunch breaks, perceived or otherwise, is just one part of the bigger picture.
So, I mean, yeah — take back the lunch break, if you can. And encourage everyone around you to take back the lunch break as well. And while you’re at it, allow yourself to put your work email away while you’re not actually at work, or at least talk to your boss about finding ways to cut down on it or manage it if you’re finding yourself on call all day, every day. Take your vacation days. Push back if your boss tries to stop you from taking the vacation days your benefits package entitles you to. And also do things like support legislation that will regulate workplaces, prevent discrimination, provide things like guaranteed parental leave, and all that other good stuff. (Are you listening, politicians?)
Needing to take breaks isn’t a sign of weakness, and people aren’t lazy if they don’t spend every waking minute working. And it’s high time our culture stopped viewing it as such.