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Taking a break – French style

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At some point in our careers or even as students we face a time so busy and stressful with deadlines approaching so fast, that it’s very hard not to feel overwhelmed. This could often last for weeks and be very challenging to our mental health. What’s the best way to stay sane and keep calm through such a tough time? The most common reaction we have is to think that there is no time to stop and if we work without a break, we are more likely to finish all tasks in time. Surprisingly, there is a better approach: take a break. According to research, our productivity increases if we have a break. And we’re talking a “real” break, one that involves completely removing ourselves from the work environment. A bit like the French do.

The French labour code prohibits employees from eating lunch at their desk. The French tradition of a social lunch break dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when workplaces were often unsanitary and full of germs- obviously not the environment we want when consuming our meal. The government’s answer was to ban eating lunch in the workplace, so windows can be open and buildings cleared of germs. Following the 1894 decree (Article R4228-19 of the Code du Travail) that banned eating lunch at the workplace, the French slowly built their tradition of taking long and very social breaks, usually at a restaurant. Eating alone during lunchtime is frowned upon. Some take it as far as enjoying a glass of wine with their lunch, others choose the park and being outside (weather permitting). If you’re lucky enough to live close to your office, you might even consider going home for a family meal.

According to food culture historian Martin Bruegel, lunch break does lead to better health outcomes. It makes workers more productive. But, he argues, there’s a bigger philosophical point. The lunch break is not just good for individuals or the companies they work for. It’s good for society. “People who eat together are able to talk about issues, and they can work out tensions or different opinions. They create a culture in which having different points of view is possible.”

In February 2021 the French government had to put that article on hold allowing staff to eat their meal at the desk. Unfortunately, the sociable lunch break in a restaurant was no longer possible with Covid restrictions and restaurant closures. But rest assured, this was only temporary and the French are back to enjoying their breaks the best way they can.

Looking around the offices in the UK, we see that many people don’t leave the building at lunch. Even if they don’t bring their sandwiches from home, many choose a quick trip to the local store followed by eating at their desk, while looking at their screen. Some even use an app to have their meal delivered to their office. Could we take an important lesson from the French? Would our productivity after a long lunch in a restaurant improve or worsen? There is only one way to find out.