All it takes is a sandwich
But when was the last time you stepped away from your desk and took a lunch break?
Workers in the UK take the shortest lunch breaks in Europe, three in ten skip lunch altogether, and the majority will stay chained to their desk, mindlessly eating. Not a pretty picture.
Why do we do the things we do?
We all need food and rest, so why do we often completely ignore one of the most important meals of the day - yes lunch? When our concentration is waning and our bodies are calling out for movement, why do we continue to sit chained to our desks, figuratively banging our heads against the brick wall that is our work?
Slowing down to speed up
I used to think lunch was for wimps, until I cleverly got myself to "job burnout" due to not taking my well-deserved lunch break. I had the misplaced idea that if I did, less work would get done. So, I would sit at my desk, mindlessly munching on my Kit Kats and hammering away at my beloved computer, looking very professional and efficient, when in reality, I was much less productive. In fact, I ended up having to take a month off work to recover from my lack of breaks, and to think I thought my resilience was off the scale high -being the clever psychologist I thought I was, the irony. This was actually one of the hardest times of my life, and I simply had to change something; I had to change the way I worked.
The truth is, you need regular breaks in order to be more productive and happy. (Yes, happy; being happy at work is absolutely achievable.) You need to slow down to speed up - stepping away from your work will result in less stress and more achievement.
What does stress actually do to your brain?
When you become stressed, the left side of your brain (which is responsible for decision-making, memory, language and problem solving) quite literally starts to shut down. Yet, your right side (which is primarily responsible for your emotions), almost never shuts down.
Decision making goes for a wander
So, how would the left side of your brain shutting down affect your work? Well, firstly, you will be less productive because your decision-making skills will slow down. What should you do about that monthly report? How should you deal with this new client? What should you do first? And to boot, you will be more emotionally reactive, so getting upset about the little things will become more and more common.
Memory and mistakes
To add insult to injury, you will forget a lot of what you're supposed to be doing because your short-term memory will not be fully available; this of course leads to many mistakes because you spend more time getting caught up in minor details that you'd usually deal with quite easily. These are all signs of stress, and you are bringing stress into your life by not taking a lunch break or a break of some kind at least. It seems a little silly when you think of it like that.
A bit of Science
Now let's look at the actual science of stress. Cortisol is released into the body whenever we get stressed - hence its name, the 'stress hormone' - and this includes when we're glued to our computers for hours on end, fretting over our daily tasks.
Cortisol dip and chocolate
Our cortisol levels generally dip around 2 p.m. - which is why we may want something sweet around this time to pick us up. This cortisol slows down insulin production, reserving the glucose in your body ready for 'flight or fight'.
No one is out to kill you at work (most of the time).
This primal instinct kicks in when we think someone is out to get us, and most of the time, no one at work wants to kill you (although that depends on what you do for a living, of course). So this is all a bit wasted, isn't it? The glucose then increases your cholesterol level, and as stress and heart disease are closely linked, now do you think it's worth stepping away from that desk for a few minutes?
Look at your face
If this sounds too abstract for you to get your head around, how about looking at your appearance? Cortisol also breaks down collagen, meaning that the more stressed you are, the older you will appear. Really not worth it, right?
And now the good news
By stepping away from your computer and going outside, the left side of your brain actually starts to slowly switch back on. Taking a 20 minute walk outside will make you feel happier as the endorphins get released into your body, and a happier worker can concentrate more, getting less irritated with other people (and technology!).
Taking breaks is always your responsibility, so it's time to become more militant with yourself and reclaim your lunch time.
A call to lunch arms
1: Make time for your lunch break. Block out the time in your diary or computer calendar, even if you put 'meeting' in as the reason.
2: Go outside. Sunlight is good for you, and fresh air will help wake you up. This is especially important if you work from home.
3: Set boundaries for your break. Respond to interruptions with a firm, "not now."
4: Go for a walk or get out of the office - just make sure you physically get away from your desk. Invite your colleagues to join you, and perhaps set the office trend for going out to lunch.
5: Have regular breaks, not just at lunchtime. Try and move away from your desk once an hour, and perhaps set a reminder on your computer so you don't forget.
6: If you're a manager, be aware that when you don't take breaks yourself, members of your team may feel guilty for taking their own breaks, adding to their stress levels.
7: If you're more of an introvert, being on your own for a few minutes will reenergise you. If you're more of an extrovert, however, then socialising during lunch will reenergise you.
8: Think about your own understanding and fears of unsaid expectations in your office. Learn to take breaks and get over the fear of being judged for not working hard enough.
So you see, lunch is not for wimps. Lunch is for the clever, relaxed people who know how to handle their stress. So, the next time you feel that workplace pressure creeping up on you, stand back from your desk, grab your food, and head outside.
Don't make the same mistakes I did and get to the point where you burn yourself out. Regular breaks will help you look after not only your body, but your mind too.
Together, we can start saying no to work-related stress... one sandwich at a time.