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Lawyers are terrible at taking lunch breaks

Lawyers are terrible at taking lunch breaks

Lunch breaks

New findings show that less than three in 10 Australians are utilising the full designated break for lunch, which can and does have detrimental effects on our holistic health and wellbeing. But the situation is worse in the legal profession, writes Jerome Doraisamy.

According to new research from global recruitment firm Hays, just 28 per cent – of 1,253 working professionals surveyed – say they take their full lunch break on most days.

One in four said they take approximately three-quarters of their lunch break, and 22 per cent said they take about half of it. A further 18 per cent say they take just one-quarter of the lunch break, and seven per cent say they never take a break.

Taken alone, these findings are an indictment on the professional practices of working Australians across the board; but comparisons with the legal profession show that those in law have more reason to be concerned.

Earlier this year, myself, Professor Natalie Skead (dean of law, The University of Western Australia) and Dr Shane Rogers (lecturer, Edith Cowan University) published research outlining the alarming rates of maladaptive eating behaviours among Australian lawyers and law students, which corresponded with higher levels of psychological distress, anxiety and depression.

We learned that 42 per cent of lawyers have to eat lunch at their desks more often than not and 89 per cent have had to do so at least once in the past month.

In addition, three in four lawyers say they’ve had to skip a meal at least once in the past month, 78 per cent had to snack rather than having a proper meal over the previous 30 days. Eighty-four per cent had to eat at irregular times of day at least once in the past month while 38 per cent had to do so more often than not.

Just as with rates of mental health ailments, lawyers are well above average compared to the general professional population.

Over the past three years, I’ve spoken at dozens of law firms across the country about the fundamental importance of self-care. One of the most common responses I get from individual lawyers is that they know they have to be better at managing their days and prioritising the things that matter, like having proper breaks, both at work and outside of it.

If you don’t allow adequate time for relaxation and disconnection both during and at the end of the day, your batteries aren’t going to be fully recharged when you come back to work the next day. The same logic applies for lunch breaks: physical separation from the desk and your screens is paramount for emotional and psychological separation, so that you can unwind, space out and then come back and hit the ground running again.

One of the more ironic – if not laughable – findings from the Hays study was that 93 per cent of respondents acknowledged that taking a proper lunch break has benefits for their productivity at the desk. Lawyers are self-aware enough to know this too. Why they’re not adhering to logic they already possess, to the extent they can control their workflow, is beyond me.

When asked what helps keep them fresh and alert at work, 65 per cent of respondents to the Hays study said getting away from their desk to eat lunch helps achieve this. This was followed by short five-minute breaks for fresh air (56 per cent), a lunchtime break from all devices (50 per cent), minimising eye fatigue, such as looking away from your computer screen at regular intervals (44 per cent), gentle stretches at your desk (41 per cent), listening to music (37 per cent), exercise at lunchtime (36 per cent), regularly eating small, healthy meals or snacks (33 per cent) and mindfulness or meditation (20 per cent).

These are all simple, easily-implementable actions. No lawyer should look at the above list and be sceptical or overwhelmed.

Lawyers – especially those in graduate or junior positions – too often believe they are too busy to step out for a lunch break, that they can power through, or even that they don’t need it. Those with little to no years of PQE may even think it’s a good look to stay at the desk and show commitment to the cause.

Anyone who thinks this is kidding themselves.

Managers, and team leaders too, need to be better at ensuring those under their purview are taking adequate time at lunch to get away from the desk and eat. Not only are such breaks legislated, not only is there a moral imperative to better look after your team, but there is a fiscal and professional incentive to doing so: those who can properly disconnect will be more motivated and energised when they return to the desk.

Employing maladaptive eating behaviours such as not taking a full lunch break, skipping meals, eating at the desk or snacking rather than eating a proper meal won’t make you a better lawyer in the long-run. Prioritising your health and happiness is the surest way to being a productive, successful legal professional.

Plus, we’re coming into summer. Why wouldn’t you want to step outside for an hour and enjoy the sunshine?

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