, Salem, MA


September 2, 2013

Column: Out to lunch? Not American workers

Whither lunch?

Once a hallmark of the working day, the proverbial “lunch hour” has taken an extended leave, probably never to return.

These days, about the closest most American workers come to enjoying a regular lunch hour is watching others experience them on AMC’s “Mad Men.” The secretaries cover their electric typewriters to signal “out to lunch.” Executives claim, “I’m going to lunch” when they slip out for a rendezvous.

It was the heyday of the three-martini lunch — long, expensive, boozy business meals that executives enjoyed and companies deducted from their taxes as a business expense — which prompted a change to the tax code.

In 1978, President Gerald Ford defended the practice before the National Restaurant Association Convention, calling the three-martini lunch an epitome of American efficiency. “Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and snootful at the same time?” Ford cracked.

Efficient or not, at one time, nearly every place of employment was expected to provide workers with an hour around noon to take a break from work, take a walk, get some air, run an errand, de-stress, think and, most important, enjoy a meal with co-workers, business contacts, friends, family or alone.

Now it’s nostalgia, although not everywhere, as a recent trip to southern France confirmed.

A 2012 survey of North American workers by Right Management, a workforce solutions company, found lunch hours have become a casualty of modern working life. Only one in five workers reported taking a real break for lunch. The plurality, 39 percent, said they have lunch at their desks.

The fast food giant, KFC Corp., did a similar study in 2006 and found that more than 60 percent of America’s office workers consider the 60-minute lunch to be the biggest myth in office life.

Why? Workplace expectations have changed. There is more work per person, office workers don’t have union contracts protecting break times, and everyone’s afraid to appear to be the one slacking off.

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