A quarter of Britain's workforce take no midday break and only 2 per cent take a full hour, according to a new survey. In teaching, more than in many professions, stress levels make a lunch hour essential, yet it is often impossible to find the time. Lynne Wallis reports
Lunch," declared Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, "is for wimps. " And a large part of the workforce in Britain today would seem to agree. Of 500 18 to 45-year-olds questioned in a recent survey, 25 per cent said they never took a lunch break. Just 2 per cent took a full hour or more, and the average time out was 40 minutes.
The research, commissioned by the soft drinks company, Robinsons, unearthed further worrying trends. Some people munch at their desks, some snack throughout the day, and others claim they work better if they don't eat at all. Lunch, it seems, is going out of fashion, but at what cost to our physical and mental well-being?
Those surveyed reported stress-induced days off and bouts of bad temper, often taken out on colleagues. And, if there's one thing a busy, stressed staff-room doesn't need, it is its inhabitants becoming irritable because they didn't or couldn't recharge their batteries halfway through the day.
Trainee primary teacher Alison Creeland paints a picture most teachers would recognise. She has just finished three weeks of work experience, and observes: "The teachers I've been around don't have lunch breaks at all. They're planning for lessons, on playground duty, hearing kids read, or clearing up after the morning. If they're not doing any of the above, they have meetings to attend. "
The Robinsons research revealed that women take fewer lunch breaks than men, and are consequently thought to be more prone to work-related stress. Robinsons asked five women to keep "stress diaries" which were then analysed by a psychologist; the one teacher among them was adjudged the most stressed.
Hannah Fitzgerald, 24, teaches at a mixed secondary school in Sussex and rarely takes a break for lunch. She usually has four "very stressful" days a week, and sleeps poorly. By the weekend she is on the point of "collapse". Psychologist Pam Spurr, who analysed Hannah's "stress diary", says she would expect Hannah's job satisfaction to be very low given her stress levels, and recommends she make immediate efforts to "de-stress". Alongside tips on sleeping and being better organised at work, she advises Hannah to stop "desk-top munching" and "develop the confidence to get out and do something to take her mind off work".
This is all very well, but how many teachers get the time to take an hour to walk in the park, go to the gym, or do any of the other things that are good for us?
Leigh Anderson teaches at a boys' secondary in Nottingham and finds that a lunch break is a rare luxury. The knock-on effect is increased stress. "Working with all boys is especially exhausting, and you just end up shouting. It's not fair on them for us not to take breaks, because it makes us ratty," she says.
If Leigh isn't supervising a lunchtime detention, she's watching her form play football or catching up with pupils who want to go through coursework. She confesses: "Some lunchtimes a kid will knock at the staffroom door and ask for me, and I'll get someone to say I'm not here. You deal with kids all day, and although they're worth it, you don't want to see any at lunchtime. You really do need a break in this job. By Friday I usually feel really crap."
The School Meals Act, 1968, decreed that all teachers should have a break at lunchtime, but it doesn't always happen in practice. Olive Forsyth, spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers, explains: "Teachers often run chess or drama clubs at lunchtime, or they use the time to catch up on marking. They may get a break away from kids, but they don't usually get a break from work. And, if they sit in the staffroom, the conversation is usually about school. Teachers really need a period of refreshment, because teaching is hard work and it's stressful."
Katie Brown, who teaches nursery age children at a school in Rotherham, has fond memories of a school on the Isle of Wight where she trained and where she says that everyone made time for lunch. But the school's headteacher denies this. "We're as hard-pushed as anywhere else, and no, our teachers don't have time for lunch either," she says defensively.
Taking lunch can be seen as shirking or not taking your work seriously. Katie, who rarely gets more than 10 minutes to scoff her sandwich, says:
"People here would all be calmer if they took a lunch break, but our contract says you have to work so many hours with the kids in contact time, and then as many additional hours as it takes to do the job. No one here has an hour or anywhere near."
In theory, Katie has a break between the end of the morning session at 11.30am, and the start of the afternoon session at 12.40pm. But she says:
"I'm preparing for the afternoon, and clearing up from the morning, or doing displays." The only occasion when staff do anything social at lunch is at the end of term when they go to the pub.
Katie recalls: "At another school I worked at we went to the pub every Friday and the dinner ladies were really good and looked after the kids for longer. The problem we have is too many contact hours. If we had the odd free period to plan lessons and set things up, we might have time for lunch."
MAKE OR BREAK
Psychologist Dr Pam Spurr identifies three categories of luncher.
The Desk Top Muncher fools herself into thinking she's looking after herself by having a light lunch at the desk. She mistakenly believes 10 minutes is enough time to relax, but because she's still chained to her desk her thoughts never leave work behind. Dr Spurr advises her to start by taking a 15-minute break away from work, building up gradually to half an hour minimum.
The Ad Hoc Snacker tends to have a chaotic working life. At the end of each day she feels she must sort herself out, but by the morning she's dashing around again. She is driven by insecurity, feeling if she's away from her deskwork, she must be wasting opportunities to get things done. Prone to early burnout due to stress, she needs to learn to pace herself and structure her day to include a lunch break. Try all the local eateries to find a select few, and try meeting a friend to help create the feeling that it's a proper lunch break.
The Lunch Breaker is a role model for us all. She has energy reserves to get her through the day, and enjoys her evenings because she doesn't take work worries home with her. There are two types of lunch breaker: those who stick to routine and use it to structure their time, and those who thrive on flexibility and spontaneity but still listen to the needs of their mind and body to ensure they get what they need. Neither type allows stress to build up to intolerable levels. To become a lunch breaker you need to acknowledge your limitations and recognise that there is only so much time in the day, prioritise and have confidence in your intuition. Most importantly, recognise that the lunch hour is a necessity.