Overworked? Take back your lunch hour

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Your article about why everyone should take a vacation ("5 ways to take a guilt-free vacation," June 2) got a lot of attention in my office, and we all agree that we are exhausted and need some downtime. But how are we supposed to take our vacations when we can't even get away from our desks long enough to go out for lunch? I work for a big company where so many people have been laid off in the past two years that, even with business relatively slow, we are all putting in 10- and 12-hour days (for weeks on end) just to get the work out the door.

Our boss eats a 10-minute lunch at his desk every day, so we all do the same. Yet, on the odd days when I take a short walk at lunchtime or (gasp) go to the gym for half an hour, I feel so much less stressed, and get so much more done in the afternoon, that I really believe our whole department would function better if everyone took a real lunch break on a regular basis. Can you please suggest some way to talk to my boss about this without seeming like a slacker? --Brown Bagging It

How stressed are you?
1. Conditions at work are unpleasant or sometimes even unsafe.
Very Often

Dear B.B.I.: It's a sad day when leaving your desk for 30 minutes can make you fear being branded a slacker, but welcome to the post-recession world. Interestingly, lots of other people have reached the same conclusion you have, at roughly the same time: A break in the middle of the day, to refresh and recharge, can do wonders for morale and productivity.

This summer, a company called The Energy Project launched a weekly event in public parks around the U.S. called Take Back Your Lunch. The effort was aimed at getting people out of the office for a little while at noontime Wednesdays for food and non-work-related conversation. The first round of gatherings proved so popular that the idea spread to more than 50 cities, including New York City, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Atlanta, Dayton, Minneapolis, Miami, San Francisco, and Honolulu. It's even caught on in a few places overseas, like Mumbai, India and Koln, Germany.

Great, but how do you get your boss on board? You might point out that Take Back Your Lunch is the brainchild of Energy Project's founder Tony Schwartz, who has consulted on boosting workforce productivity with dozens of big successful outfits -- like Google, Sony, Ford, Ernst & Young, Gillette, and the Cleveland Clinic. Schwartz also is the author of a fascinating new book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance (Free Press, $28.00).

One of the needs to which the subtitle refers: A break now and then. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but our technology-saturated culture, driven by computers that are "on" 24/7, has caused many people (like your boss, perhaps) to lose sight of the obvious. "We're far more complex than any machine and we have vastly more moving parts. Still, most of us are more vigilant about refueling and maintaining our cars than we are about taking care of ourselves," observes Schwartz. "When demand in our lives intensifies, our pattern is to hunker down and push harder, rather than to refuel more frequently." Sound familiar?

Talkback: Do you get to go out for a lunch break these days? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

The trouble with pushing harder and allowing ourselves less downtime, Schwartz says, is that "past a certain point, you become less efficient. The real measure of productivity is the value you generate, not the number of hours you put in."

Since companies are, or claim to be, all about generating value, Schwartz and his Energy Project colleagues have done extensive research on how to do it in a sustainable way. "We've discovered that managing energy is better than managing time, because time is finite, but energy is renewable," he says. "If you manage your energy better, you can do far more in far less time."

To see how well you're currently doing at managing your energy, and get customized suggestions for improving things, take The Energy Project's quick 20-question test. Schwartz's firm has administered this quiz to thousands of employees over the past ten years. The results are usually "depressing but eye-opening," he says. "The average score is 14 -- that is, out of 20 behaviors people regularly engage in, 14 are energy-depleting."

Just for fun, you might encourage your boss and your colleagues to take the test as well. At the very least, this exercise could kick off some interesting discussions.

"We want to encourage people to go ahead and do what they instinctively know is best for them and makes them most productive," says Schwartz. "In many companies now, there is very little acknowledgment, or none at all, of the plain fact that work is out of whack. So our purpose is to start the conversation."

Who knows, maybe a group of you can start leaving your desks for a bite to eat on Wednesdays -- or maybe even (imagine it!) on a few other days as well. There are still a few weeks of summer left -- to find a Take Back Your Lunch event near you, or to start one, go to meetup.com/Take-Back-Your-Lunch, or takebackyourlunch.com. You can also check it out on Twitter, at twitter.com/tbylunch.

Talkback: Do you get to go out for a lunch break these days? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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