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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Fast Food, if Any at All

As the Lunch Hour Wanes, Fewer People Take Time Out to Eat

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page F05

Do you ever feel like the lunch hour deserves a space next to Fonzie's leather jacket in the Smithsonian?

Particularly for salaried workers, "lunch hour" means work. Or errands. Or chips and a soda while going over sales figures.

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"I've noticed that bosses are starting meetings at 11:30 a.m. and ending about 2 p.m., with no break for lunch," a reader wrote to me recently. "At first I thought this was a rare event, but now I'm not so sure. By 2 p.m., I have another meeting starting, therefore no break for lunch. . . . We all need a break during a long work day. And the work day is stretching to more than eight hours. In my [shared, online] Outlook calendar, I'm blocking 2 hours, from 11:30-1:30, to give me time to eat, exhale, return e-mails/phone calls and talk to staff. I really need this time to be an effective manager."

Whether implemented by a boss or forced upon oneself, that leisurely lunch hour scene is simply not so common anymore.

Fifty-five percent of Americans do things other than eat during their lunch hour, according to the Steelcase Workplace Index Survey, a semiannual survey that gauges workplace trends. The term lunch hour itself is an archaic expression. On average, workers spend just 36 minutes at lunch. Of those who fall into the category of workers who do things other than eat during lunch, nearly 40 percent said they have exchanged that traditional lunch hour for some extra time to catch up on work.

Meanwhile, 14 percent of workers do not take any time for lunch in an average workweek.

"I tend to work through lunch if I'm not with a prospective client for lunch," said Clay Parcells, regional managing partner with Right Management Consultants. He actually likes to sit at his desk to eat because it's a quiet time when he can work without constant interruption, and he can catch prospective clients also at their desk. But Parcells makes it a point never to schedule a meeting for his employees during lunchtime. "I encourage them to get out, take a break," he said.

Parcells said Right's employees at the Fairfax office typically eat at their desks, while those at the Hunt Valley office actually take on the practice of -- gasp -- lunching. They bring their lunch and eat at noon every day and do spend a full hour in the office kitchen together. Parcells spoke of that practice with much admiration. He doesn't know how the co-worker lunch started, but he appreciates it. "It builds a great esprit de corps and they get to know each other," he said.

Some people have come up with a good reason to skip lunch. "I try to work through lunch and bring work home," said a woman who works for an association in Alexandria. She didn't want her name used because she feared her boss wouldn't take it well. She likes to work through lunch so she can assure an early departure, about 4:30 p.m. She has two babies who need to be picked up from day care, and if Beltway traffic is bad, well, there goes half her salary on day care late fees.

"I purposely work flexible hours so I am able to leave at a decent hour," she said.

Of course, that doesn't stop the resentment she has for the boss who always schedules meetings from 10 a.m. to noon -- that actually last until 2 p.m. And then if she tries to run out for food after the meeting, it's nearly impossible to stick to those flex hours. She admits that on well more than one occasion, her lunch consisted of a late afternoon coffee.

Some don't like lunchtime meetings, but some don't mind them because they don't cut into their typical break time.

Kara Houston, a software tester in Arlington, usually eats at her desk around noon, then takes a break later in the afternoon to refresh herself. Without that little 15- to 20-minute break, she said, she's pretty much a basket case. She used to try to take a regular lunch but found noon was just too early to break. Later in the afternoon is when she needs to get up and move around to refocus and get back into the rest of her day.

If she can't take that break, "it makes the whole day seem worse," she said.

Jennifer, a government contractor who asked that her last name not be used because she didn't want to be reprimanded, said her weekly staff meeting is usually right around her lunchtime. And she's pregnant, so watch out. "It was a little easier for me to go an hour or two without worrying about how hungry I'd get before I was pregnant," she said. "Now, I don't feel so good if I don't eat." She has occasionally brought lunch with her, but there have been times when the meeting is held in a room where no food is allowed.

She will sometimes let meeting planners know that meeting during lunch in a non-eating room is impossible for her, and they have made accommodations at times. "They're pretty understanding," she said. She counts herself lucky, even on those days when she has to sneak in a few snacks to survive a day without lunch. On those days, she leaves after eight hours, no matter what. And for that, growling stomach or not, she is grateful. "Not everyone has that flexibility."

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your tips and column ideas at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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