It is time for doctors to reclaim their lunch breaks and try to eat regularly with colleagues
“Hey, how about grabbing some lunch?” In the workplace, lunch is about more than just food. It is a social ritual that builds camaraderie and sharing of thoughts and feelings—in other words, the sort of experiences that help bolster resilience and combat burnout. We listened to four musicians discuss the highlights of their experiences in the musician exchange program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. Violist Danny Kim raved about the human connections and sense of belonging made possible by shared meals with his German musical colleagues in the Kantine of the Gewandhaus. In contrast, German musician Manfred Ludwig was struck by the lack of a cafeteria in Boston’s Symphony Hall, noting that his American colleagues would “hop in their cars and retreat to their homes in the suburbs.”
But there is no need to cross the Atlantic to discover the benefits of eating together. Boston is home to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study of Harvard graduates and Boston inner city residents that has been going on for 81 years. One of its major findings is that two of the best predictors of health and happiness are human connections and shared experiences with others. A wealth of scientific evidence supports the benefits of shared meals or “social eating” in the workplace, but here we focus on our own experience with team lunch at the Graham Headache Center in Boston, and offer suggestions and encouragement that we hope will inspire other doctors to institute the practice of shared lunch breaks in their own workplaces.
From King Arthur’s Round Table and Firehouse community meals to Edison’s famous midnight lunches, the idea that important team building can occur over a meal at a table is not new or surprising—but opportunities to do this are becoming rarer. Opportunities for genuine human connections are becoming so scarce that setting up a coffee space gloriously changed the lives of Anesthesiologists. The lunch break has been lost in the era of electronic medical records, virtual work, and worsening work life balance. This is a shame. In our experience, team lunches provide opportunities for mindfulness, human connection, learning, and a shared sense of purpose.
As doctors, we spend a large chunk of our lives at work, so we might as well be present in the moment and enjoy our workplace. Half day clinic sessions can get hectic, but it’s easier to cope if we know we will have a chance to recuperate in between sessions over lunch. With patients, we must always maintain a warm, engaging, positive demeanour. At lunch time, we can embrace our own human nature and acknowledge hunger, fatigue or discouragement. Eating a meal together comes with a feeling of intimacy. Sharing stories over food creates a relaxed family atmosphere where coworkers become teammates: fuel for our spirit as well as our bodies. Lunch breaks give us time to process the information and emotions from the morning, so we can be fully attentive to the afternoon patients. Scheduled meal times also reduce unhealthy and mindless snacking behaviours. Having a meal some distance from the clinic—even if only in another part of the building—is refreshing.
Anyone is invited from visiting medical students, medical assistants, trainees, and senior physicians. A typical lunch finds people from all stages of life and experience. The attraction is not the food, but the fellowship. Time spent together at lunch is an investment that makes us much happier and more productive at work, and often leads to fun as well. For example, a vigorous lunchtime discussion about whether brownies made from a boxed mix could ever rival the homemade variety inspired us to hold a brownie bake-off at our annual holiday party. Our lunch group now meets outside of work for activities such as apple-picking and hiking with our families too. We feel part of a passionate and supportive community.
Although we do not delve into serious academic topics, daily lunch break is a keystone habit that has downstream effects on learning, research, and clinical collaborations. We provide each other with individualized personal and professional advice and feedback. Research projects naturally emanated from casual lunch conversations. We discuss law and advocacy topics related to our practice and career planning.
We challenge doctors who are reading this to reclaim their lunch breaks and try to eat regularly with colleagues. In an era of increased technology use, administrative burdens, and burnout, we hope that our positive lunch experience inspires others to regroup over scheduled mid-day meals.
The BMJ’s #GiveUsABreak wellbeing campaign calls for doctors to be given “the breaks that they need for their wellbeing and for patient safety.” Even short breaks are good, but we suggest that lunch breaks are best. Join us and others who have found that sharing a meal with colleagues can “make a good day great and a bad day better.” We’d like to see your lunch pictures, so tweet to us @bmj_latest and @GrahamHeadache using the hashtags #GiveUsABreak and #GiveUsALunchBreak.
Elizabeth Loder is head of research, The BMJ, chief of the Division of Headache and Pain in the Department of Neurology at the Brigham and Women’s/Faulkner Hospitals in Boston, and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Twitter: @eloder
Paul Rizzoli is an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the clinical director of the Graham Headache Center at the Brigham and Women’s/ Faulkner Hospital in Boston. Twitter: @paulrizzolimd
Competing interests: None declared.
|The BMJ is calling for doctors to be able to take the breaks that they need for their wellbeing and for patient safety. You can follow our work at https://www.bmj.com/wellbeing and take part in the campaign by sharing your examples of where things are changing for the better or where more work needs to be done through social media using #giveusabreak.