Service of Lunch Breaks Here and in France

June 20th, 2022

Categories: Labor Law, Lunch, Work

Front of a long line of people waiting for takeout at lunchtime on Third Avenue in the 40’s last week.

In the last office in which I rented space, before the pandemic raged, a bevy of IT workers in there also never left their chairs except for brief trips to the WC or unless they were called out on a job. I admit to too many similar days even though I never had a nine to five job. But if I lunched out daily for 60 to 90 minutes I think I’d tack on work at the beginning and end and would have to budget for the added expense as well.

The pandemic has changed white collar workplace culture in NYC in countless ways, slowing the frenetic pace for some, I suspect, especially for employees who continue to work remotely some of the time. On the days they’re in an office many bring their lunches from home while others order takeout and eat quickly, if they work at companies that don’t have cafeterias.

But not in France where there is a labor code, launched in 1894, forbidding workers to eat at their desks. “La pause déjeuner” can last up to an hour and a half according to Gregory Warner in his NPR podcast, “Rough Translation.”  

The lunch break started in France, said Martin Bruegel on the podcast, some 130 years ago during the Industrial Revolution when, to avert disease, workplace airborne poison was thought to be cleaned out by opening factory windows. It survived a few almost reversals, said the historian.  Women workers went on strike in the beginning because they felt harassed on the streets and wanted the protection of eating in the factory, but they lost. It was suspended during the recent pandemic, but it’s back.

Bruegel concluded that after research he is convinced that the break has all sorts of benefits–well-being and happiness for starters. He reported less burnout and depression and increased productivity despite the 35 hour workweek. As employees get to know their colleagues their work becomes more collaborative. Although addressing work-related subjects at lunch is discouraged, coworkers learn more about each other such as the background to why one insists on an approach to a challenge or why another is super stressed which is impacting attitude and output.

A labor law here, like this one, would thrill restaurants and takeout businesses but, I imagine, not employers. Do you think it would work or would we, in certain industries, perceive a long daily lunch break away from our desks as slothful? Do or did you eat lunch at your desk?

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21 Responses to “Service of Lunch Breaks Here and in France”

  1. Anonymous Said:

    I think it would be great if the employees had a dining room type set up. Feel like you’re eating with friends and family and not at a metal table with metal chairs. It should not look like the lunch room in prison….. A warm friendly atmosphere is good for everyone.

  2. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: Never ate/eat lunch at desk. Always in need of a real physical and mental break, even if just for a short while. Plus always feared I’d spill drink or food on important papers or electronic equipment. Real break, alone or with others, good for mental health IMHO.

  3. ASK Said:

    I had to smile at the blog today. Years ago, as a young publicist, I was called into our agency president’s office. He had my weekly expense reports in front of him. His complaint? I was taking enough editors out to lunch, and when I did, the restaurants weren’t top places! In my naïveté, I countered that those lunches made my afternoons less productive, a rationale he dismissed with a wave of his hand. I gather those days are gone forever…

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Linda,

    I know you are right but all too often it was 3 pm and I’d not budged. There are many things I should have done that would have improved my performance and health, like stand as I worked at my desk etc. but didn’t and don’t. I am so grateful to my husband for pulling me away from my office for vacations. Left to me they never would have happened. I always felt better and was more productive on my return.

  5. BC Said:

    Most breaks are for smoking. I am against that! Many places give 15 minutes twice a day outside to smoke. Here, many workers take a walk on their 15 minute break. Much better!

  6. Anonymous Said:

    Anonymous,

    Good idea! There are corporations that give free food all day long to encourage employees from leaving the premises. I don’t know if it still does but Bloomberg was known for this and people were said to gain weight until they got used to the largess.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    I think those days are gone in most industries for many reasons, the main one is lack of time. In the day many editors and reporters had assistants and they didn’t need to run in many directions as they do now, updating stories online , responding to comments on social media–posting on social media if they didn’t have dedicated staff–while researching, editing and/or writing new material. Lunches could take a good 3 hours out of a day between travel and eating time. I think many of the serious editors appreciated your approach.

  8. Stephanie Schley Said:

    Stephanie on Facebook: I don’t always eat lunch but I would always leave my job for a bit and go for a walk.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Stephanie,

    Smart. I’d try but the day too often got–and gets–the better of me. In winter 4 pm and the dark comes far too quickly!

  10. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: I’d get “hangry.” Could never go until 3pm before eating lunch in traditional 9-5 work setting. As for standing, never did that but frequent walks to rest room and areas helped.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    BC,

    Even before the pandemic sent people home to work remotely, there were increasingly fewer smokers outside Manhattan office buildings. We still see smokers on the streets but it’s more the exception than the rule.

    I once visited a corporation in a part of the country known for too-long stretches of inclement weather. Management had dedicated lanes in hallways inside headquarters for people to walk or jog during breaks. It was innovative at the time.

  12. Hank Goldman Said:

    Hank on Facebook: I was one of those who picked up lunch in a midtown shop and brought it up to my office, but in my industry, advertising, the multi martini luncheon restaurant was almost like an extension of an office! That was then… Wonder what the industry is like now for meeting clients and treating them like royalty? Great topic

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Hank,

    I suspect there are always sufficient budgets in advertising to pay for the martini’s [not always in PR anymore and some press won’t accept so much as a small paper cup of black coffee] but notwithstanding the pandemic, there might be health and social pressures to opt for a glass of Perrier with a twist. Just guessing.

  14. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie on Facebook: Ate at my desk before taking the hour to walk 😊

  15. Nancie Steinberg Said:

    Nancie on Facebook: I liked to eat at desk and then go outside for an hour or visa versa sometimes !

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancie and Debbie,

    I’m out of step and I know you both are right. Nothing new. On a day without appointments or out of office meetings I’d too often leave the office for the first time at day’s end.

  17. EAM Said:

    EAM on Facebook: I started eating at my desk but run down to the cafeteria to pick up food.

  18. lucrezia Said:

    Eating at one’s desk invites constant interruptions. Preferring to avoid disturbances, I would seek out a local deli or diner.

    The no eating at desk law sounds both silly and intrusive. Supposing rotten or even dangerous weather, and the workplace has no kitchen or dining area – is one now forced to eat on the floor?

  19. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I imagine that the lawmakers didn’t think of inclement weather when they passed the law. Workers are used to leaving the premises and must not be worried about such discomfort.

  20. lucrezia Said:

    Judging by the long lines reaching out the door of one local deli and beyond, most workers enjoy eating out. The French are not obedient. Many probably recognize the law’s stupidity and ignore it when convenient.

  21. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    Most of those in line for lunch in my photo will be eating at their desks or if their office has a kitchen with table or a dining space or conference room–if it’s allowed–there.

    As for the French, who knows what their national character is these days. Like most countries, they have absorbed significant numbers of foreigners and being part of the European Union may also have smudged the lines of their national character and penchant for balking at rules. In any case, a 128 year old labor code still stands, a code that would have little hope of being enacted in many other countries in the first place. The standard workweek is 35 hours while here, it is 40.

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