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29th January 2019

HR Issues – Hungry for home time: could we be smarter with our working day?

Picture this: you’ve had a crazy morning at work rushing to meet deadlines, juggling lots of priorities, and people are chasing you about your lack of reply to an email they only sent yesterday. Lunch time arrives – what does the typical city office worker do? In this 100mph, 24/7 technological working environment, this involves a quick dash to the franchise café that provides a wide variety of coffee and sandwich offerings. Then it’s back to your desk, unaware of what you are cramming down, to either continue working or spend an overly long stint on social media.

Consider a slight difference in culture, then, where there is more of a balance. The idea of a packed lunch with the same food every day will not seem completely foreign to us, although we usually like a bit of choice: type of bread; type of dressing; filling; hot or cold. The people of Norway, however, embrace and celebrate the idea of the boring – even disappointing – ‘matpakke’ or packed lunch. Albeit stereotypical, the traditional open sandwich matpakke, with tasteless sliced cheese on dry wholemeal bread, is the staple everyday routine lunch for children, workers and students across the country. But what could possibly be the function of this unthinking blandness?

It saves time during the working day

The culture of the prepared matpakke has enabled a thirty-minute lunch break in Norway, typically involving either this famous sandwich or a quick trip to the office canteen. Less of the working day is taken up by a long lunch break, therefore, meaning lots of workers are able to finish earlier in the afternoon. As a result of this, Norway boasts one of the shortest working weeks on average in the world, roughly 27.3 hours, as cited by TIME magazine in 2017. Furthermore, early work finishes are related to a strong importance given to down-time and experiencing nature.

It is more productive

A balanced lunch break – shorter than an hour, but not ‘straight back to work’ – has a dual purpose. On the mental wellbeing side, a 30 minute lunch break often results in an earlier finish for Norwegian workers, while still allowing a catch up with colleagues. However, from an efficiency perspective, the purpose of a shorter lunch break is also evident of a strong emphasis on productivity. In the same TIME magazine article mentioned above, Norway placed 3rd in a list of the world’s most productive countries, producing $81.3 of GDP per hour worked. The United Kingdom, by contrast, placed 15th with $52.1 per hour worked.

It avoids decision fatigue

It’s all well and good having a packed lunch every day because it saves time and makes us more productive. But why does it have to be the same thing every single day?

On a very detailed scale, not making small decisions about what you will have for lunch means you conserve energy for more important work-related decisions throughout the day. Other small decisions like this, for example what to wear on a given day, or how to get to work, can contribute to ‘decision fatigue’. This is a small point: Norwegians eating the same cheese and wholemeal bread is probably more down to their culture than actively thinking about decision fatigue. Nonetheless, it represents a type of thinking which is interesting to bear in mind.

Admittedly, there are obvious differences between British and Norwegian culture. Just because Norwegian employers allow workers to finish at 3pm so they can get home before it gets dark, this does not mean British employers should hurry to do the same. And by no means should we all ditch our nutritious and tasty lunch options for the matpakke sliced cheese and bread. However, government, employers and employees alike should consider the cultural attitude towards flexible, ‘smarter’ working, and being efficient with our time. In fact, there is currently a petition in Scotland, driven by medical evidence, pushing for a later school starting time to allow adolescents more sleep.

On a personal level, we should more consciously take an actual lunch break and be more ‘present’ when doing so. This way, we can avoid ‘presenteeism’ – being at work for the sake of it – and contribute more meaningfully to life at work and outside of it.

If you have any queries on the above article, please contact Scott McCrory-Irving.

29th January 2019