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Depending on the day’s temporary lunch invasion, I either slide my keyboard a few inches forward or a few to the right—far enough to make room for food, but close enough to still answer emails. On sushi days, I slip a brown napkin under the plastic tub of soy sauce in case of splashback, but most afternoons I just stick to the hot buffet. It’s faster. Various cuisines from various parts of the world (same cafeteria) in a disposable clamshell container; food I did not necessarily envision myself eating when I woke up that morning. Beef Stroganoff over egg noodles, jambalaya, make-your-own-tacos. The bottom of the box usually leaves a lukewarm layer of dew on that particular corner of my desk (front left, nearest to the trash can, faster clean-up) the same place where I eat my lunch five days a week.
I used to relish going out. Lunch was my favorite meal. For a while, I was a regular at Pearl Diner in Lower Manhattan. They knew my order before I slung my coat over the stool and took a seat at the counter. Grilled cheese on white, steak fries, pickles, Diet Coke. It was tight and loud at that end of the restaurant, by the grill, with business men swiveling in and out, chipped plates clanking, deep fryer bubbling. I’d space out or read a magazine. It was peaceful. I’d be out of there in 25 minutes for $12 dollars, then a five minute walk back to work. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a 30-minute respite from email, G-chat notifications, Twitter outrage, and that same person from high school inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga on Facebook. Going out to lunch wasn’t about the food; it was about taking a breather. That feels like a while ago, but it wasn’t. I’m just busier now. Everyone is.
I’m among the reported 4 out of 5 Americans who takes lunch at his or her desk. While eating lunch is still a natural part of the American workday, it’s now fairly uncommon for white collar workers to go on a lunch break. Like after-hours email, this critical lack of escape is slowly chipping away at our psyches. “Staying inside, in the same location, is really detrimental to creative thinking,” UC-Davis Professor Kimberly Elsbach recently told NPR’s Here & Now. “It’s also detrimental to doing that rumination that’s needed for ideas to percolate and gestate and allow a person to arrive at an ‘aha’ moment.”
Maybe that’s why the proposed Google campus in Mountain View, California looks more like a set from Avatar than The Office.
Bike trails, canopies, movable glass structures. It doesn’t resemble “work,” nor even a building. Stanford has the lowest acceptance rate in the country partly because it feeds directly into the Silicon Valley ecosystem, a place where free lunch is an expected perk. But such cosmetic improvements to an employee’s “work life” do nothing but further blur the line between work and life. More than over-worked, maybe most people are just over-accountable.
The Mad Men three-martini lunch is long gone, and, in 2015, there’s minimal value in lobbying for something like it. But even the simple out-of-office break seems to be a vanishing institution. In Office Space, Peter, Michael, and Samir duck out of Initech’s halogen halls just to go drink coffee at Chotchkie’s, a stand-in for T.G.I. Friday’s. And even though Peter gets hit with another “Case of the Mondays quip” from an over-eager server, the tacky restaurant still represents his temporary place of solace, because it’s somewhere—anywhere—beyond his gray-walled cubicle.
Elsbach tells NPR that you don’t need to go out to eat, you simply need to leave the building during the day as a way to maintain or restore sanity. “It doesn’t have to be between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to have a positive impact,” she said. “It can be just going outside and taking a walk around the block.” Mindful or mindless, these breaks need to come back. If for no other reason: They’re good for business.
But beyond business, they’re good for you and your mental health. I don’t miss the heightened sodium intake of that semi-regular grilled cheese, but I miss watching the line cook scoop out steaming french fries. There was no algorithmically-determined number of fries to be served; I’d often end up with a few extra, sometimes a comped soda. These are little things with minimal value, but they make you feel like a person, particularly on days when other things don’t.