What workers really hunger for

Enjoying a leisurely picnic in the middle of a busy workday is a summertime pleasure few people can even dream of.

But that's exactly what a group of workers in London did one day last week. The setting was casual, but their purpose was serious: to launch a campaign carrying the unusual message, "Bring back the lunch break."

Lunch, that once-hallowed institution, is disappearing, the workers charge. They believe that reviving the tradition will increase workers' happiness.

To prove their point about the endangered state of the midday pause, they rolled out statistics from the Public and Commercial Services Union, which organized the picnic. More than half of British workers take less than the daily 30-minute lunch break they're legally entitled to, according to a poll by the union.

In addition, 1 in 7 workers never take a break at all.

As one woman who joined the picnic protest told The Times (London), "You can't get out for lunch because of your commitment to work, and you want to do a good job."

These nose-to-the-grindstone workers have plenty of company in the United States. No similar statistics track the percentage of American employees who have forgotten what a real lunch break feels like. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers are large - and growing.

Here in the Monitor newsroom, for example, many staff members are present and accounted for, either by necessity or choice, when the clock hands point straight up. Some editors and writers can be found staring intently at computer screens, nibbling absently on brown-bag sandwiches as they coax words and ideas into shape. Others assemble in conference rooms for meetings.

One colleague returns from Au Bon Pain with a cup of soup and a salad.

Another regularly heads back to his desk carrying a takeout pizza. Still others gather in the office kitchen, microwaving leftovers.

Workers at many other companies mirror our patterns. But in London, organizers of the picnic protest put their campaign theme of "work less, play more" in a context that goes beyond a mere meal. They see the demise of lunch as symbolic of a larger problem, one that emphasizes economic growth as the primary measure of progress.

A few days after last week's picnic, the British government's Sustainable Development Commission even launched a campaign against economic growth. A swelling chorus of politicians, economists, and unions is making a case for what The Times calls "less wealth creation and more happiness creation."

They note that people long to improve their quality of life and their personal well-being. One government official also emphasizes that higher incomes alone do not guarantee greater happiness.

The problem of nonstop work is hardly new, of course. In the early 1800s, Charles Lamb, in his essay "The Superannuated Man," assumed the character of a countinghouse clerk. Decade after decade, he toiled away, eight to 10 hours a day, with only a week of vacation each year, plus Christmas and Easter. He never even mentioned lunch. By the age of 50, he described his servitude this way: "I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul."

Many hardworking 21st-century employees can identify with Lamb's feelings. Others, who have been laid off and are still looking for another job, cannot. Some of them would no doubt gladly log long hours and work straight through lunch, just to have a steady job, a regular paycheck, and a structured routine again.

For members of the no-time-for-lunch bunch who share Lamb's complaint that they have "grown to their desks," there's even a new self-help book called "Permission to Play." With its lavender cover and floral illustrations, it is marketed specifically to women.

As author Jill Murphy Long explains, most Americans, women in particular, do not play enough. She writes, "The real tragedy is that American women either have no time to play or have forgotten how."

If that's the case, are women more likely than men to shortchange themselves when it comes to taking a midday timeout? The British poll doesn't say.

Perhaps a real lunch is among the quiet pleasures Iris Murdoch had in mind when she said, "One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats."

On this holiday weekend, many Americans will savor three days of leisure, perhaps even giving themselves "continuous small treats" and "permission" to play. No urgent clocks will tick, no demanding bosses will beckon. As they light backyard grills or tote picnics to the park, some might silently repeat the credo of the London picnickers: Work less, play more, and take a break at noon.

They might also paraphrase Charles Schulz by whispering, Happiness is a leisurely lunch. It could be the first step in a larger plan to reorder priorities and carve out more free time at work and at home.

Surely the boss will understand.

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