Employers, stop scheduling meetings during lunchtime

The first time I opened my calendar to see a meeting booked during lunch, I panicked and my mind started racing.

As someone with an eating disorder (ED), it completely threw my day off and I was unable to concentrate all afternoon after skipping lunch out of panic. All the past feelings of life under the thumb of my eating disorder came washing back.

The average working day is eight hours long. So, why do employers so often take advantage of the one free hour staff get to unwind and recharge, by scheduling meetings over lunch?

Not only are lunchtime meetings inconvenient, they’re harmful – especially for people like me.

I developed an eating disorder at the age of 12 but decided to seek help when I was 19 after years of struggle.

Going through high school with an ED was torturous. I was constantly hungry after skipping meals, and it sucked every ounce of joy from my life. It wasn’t until I left college and started to think about my future properly I realised I had to seek help. I couldn’t let my illness hold me back forever.

I’m well on my way to healing now, but there are good and bad days. However, I’m much stronger than I ever thought I could be. I now really value routine and I need set meal times – and the most minor disruption can throw my recovery completely off course.

This manifests in lots of ways. For example, when I’ve had meetings scheduled around my lunch hour in the past, my anxiety and fears towards food have been heightened.

A million questions flood my brain as I’m unable to eat at what I’ve taught myself is ‘food time’: If I can’t eat lunch now, when can I eat lunch? If I eat lunch late, when do I eat dinner? Am I still allowed a mid-afternoon snack?

Having these questions whizzing around my head makes me feel very overwhelmed and prevents me from focusing on the tasks I’m meant to be doing. It’s also frustrating more than anything, because I’ve worked so hard to reach this point in my recovery, and I don’t want to slip backwards.

Having to sit in meetings over lunchtime means that I’ve ended up having my lunch late, which has then resulted in a later dinner, and then led to intensified food guilt and unfamiliar feelings of fullness.

Food guilt is awful and I wouldn’t wish the self hatred that can develop from doing something as natural as eating on anyone. For most people, a late dinner is no big deal but, for me, I then go to bed wracked with shame.

If I’ve eaten outside of my planned meal time, it can feel as though I’ve committed a sin. On a really bad day, it might lead to me restricting the next morning. 

On some occasions, I have skipped lunch altogether, as I still consider myself in the early stages of recovery. Despite deciding to pursue recovery in 2019, it hasn’t been an easy process and I’ve had multiple setbacks, particularly during the pandemic.

I’ve lived with an eating disorder for half of my life, so it’s going to take a long time to unlearn all the toxic ideas it’s brainwashed me to believe. I’m still finding my feet with intuitive eating – which basically means responding to my body’s hunger signals and accepting that there’s nothing wrong with eating what I want, when I want.

When my routine is distorted and when I restrict myself as a result, my eating disorder’s voice gets louder and much more aggressive. I have less energy and, therefore, I can’t do my job to the best of my ability.

Sometimes, people can suggest eating during a meeting – but I’m not yet comfortable eating in front of others. While a working lunch may be possible and perfectly suitable for some, personally, I need that time away to be in the moment with food and concentrate on nourishing my body. I need to eat in peace without distractions, allowing myself to properly digest every morsel, and appreciate how essential it is for my survival.

After over 10 years of viewing food as ‘unimportant’ and something I can live without, now that my relationship with it is healing, I can’t allow anything to put all my progress at risk. I have worked really hard and conquered so many obstacles in order to be where I am, actually fighting for my time to eat lunch – I can’t have an employer obsessed with targets and productivity pulling that from underneath me.

You might be thinking, ‘Just ask your employer to stop scheduling meetings over lunch,’ and I wish it could be so simple. The word ‘just’ is very heavy and complex when you have an eating disorder. ‘Just’ asking an employer to rearrange our meetings is also ‘just’ opening up about my trauma and then having to deal with the embarrassment and feeling like I’m inconveniencing everyone.

Something I recently started doing, however, is blocking out my lunch hour on my calendar. I felt guilty for it at first, but it shouldn’t feel any different from going to the bathroom or taking a screen break. 

It isn’t just people with turbulent relationships with food who are inconvenienced by lunch time meetings.

Having that lunch hour free is vital for general morale and well-being amongst employees. We’ve been conditioned to believe our whole lives should revolve around our work, but surely taking care of ourselves should be the priority? It shouldn’t be ‘abnormal’ to intentionally block out your lunch hour in your calendar so people can’t schedule meetings in that window.

Setting boundaries in the workplace is crucial, particularly since many toxic work environments encourage skipping lunch. Human beings are not disposable, and just because we are employed by someone, that doesn’t permit them unlimited access to us at all hours.

Especially as someone who works from home, there seems to be an assumption that our time is more accessible. But it is not. We still need breaks, we still need time to think of things other than Zoom calls. We still require rest.

The lunch hour is unpaid and it exists so deadlines, reports, statistics and admin can take a backseat while colleagues clear their heads and refuel in time for an afternoon of work.

I know when I return to my desk having eaten lunch, I feel rejuvenated, motivated, and I know I can give 100% effort to the day’s remaining tasks. I believe that the lunch hour is just as productive as any other hour of the working day.

Not because we are sitting behind a desk, ticking things off a to-do list, replying to emails or partaking in icebreakers with colleagues, but because it allows for breathing space. It gives us the freedom to choose.

It’s being able to take your dog for a walk, catch up with a friend over coffee, watch some Netflix, read your book, spend time with your children, do some grocery shopping… and, of course, it’s having the opportunity to nourish our bodies which, in turn, allows us to be the best versions of ourselves. 

We cannot do anything if we are hungry and so, if employers continue scheduling meetings during lunch time, it will quickly lead to burnout, stress and depleted motivation levels amongst staff.

Bosses wouldn’t expect a lorry driver to continue driving their lorry without stopping off for fuel, so why expect actual people to work themselves into the ground and run on nothing but coffee?

A work-life balance is essential. Not just to ensure a good performance at work, but for strong mental health, healthy relationships with loved ones, and to feel you have a purpose and identity beyond your job.

With such a long working day, there are plenty of opportunities for meetings that don’t interfere with lunch, or stress people out who already have difficulties around food.

As someone with anorexia, I vow to get better at standing my ground over lunch time meetings, prioritising my recovery and my body’s need for nourishment.

I also want others to understand the importance of a lunch hour, because skipping meals is far too normalised in today’s world.

Lunch time is your time. Take it.

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