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Home > Culture and Society

Office Life: Lunch is a political issue.

16 July 2004

More dispatches from the battlefield of office life: this week a survey showed that the average office-bound Brit spends just 27 minutes a day away from their desk. It also showed that only one in five people takes a full hour for lunch.

It's hard to believe that this sort of research is terribly reliable - it's bound to be based on anecdotal evidence, and was commissioned by that rigorous academic body Eurest, a catering firm, with a view to getting a bit of mindless publicity. (The implication would seem to be that if we're all eating at our desks, then in-house catering is a good thing... maybe... who cares, frankly?)

But the long hours culture does appear to be getting worse. Of course, people always love to exaggerate how much they're martyrs to their jobs - particularly the sort of people whose working day is as follows:


10am-11am: drink coffee and chat

11am-12pm: look at colleague's holiday snaps, read personal emails

1pm-3pm: coo over visiting ex-colleague's toddler

3pm-5pm: use Internet to check bank balance, book holiday, buy videos from Amazon and visit Big Brother chatroom

5pm: go into blind panic as they realise they haven't done any actual work.


However, for those of us who realise we might be expected to at least do some work for the people who pay our salary, this latest erosion of employees' freedom can only be a bad thing. And it's easy to see how it happens. A pointy-haired boss doesn't come over and say 'Work through lunchtime, human robots!' It's more likely that gradually a culture of long hours builds up and so you feel as though you're letting the side down by sloping off for a couple of pints at lunchtime.

It's incredibly characteristic of the modern office, where rights and responsibilities are often very vague, usually replaced by an informal understanding that you can do what you want, as long as you 'don't take the piss'. But too often, the result of this informal contract is that you never really know where you stand. Some employers also exploit this situation, roping you in to after-work bashes or weekend conferences without any extra pay or days off in lieu.

And when day-to-day rules aren't clear, there's invariably tension between staff. The office martyr will work every lunchtime, quietly building up a vicious resentment of everyone who decided to go for a pizza on Friday, and took an hour and a quarter, instead of the customary one hour. In fact there's probably one in your office, buying an M-16 over the Internet to exact their revenge the next time everyone heads off to Pizza Express for Sandra's birthday.

But overall, slowly having our lunchtimes stolen from us makes you wonder what new ignominies our employers plan to visit on us. Pay toilets? Being made to bring your own pens, like at school? Lunchtime drinking bans, even though you're in control of nothing more dangerous than a filing cabinet?

Won't somebody think of the workers?



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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