What’s A Break Room?

Ian started a new job training and social skills program last week. When the teacher sent home the daily schedule, Steve and I raised our eyes at all the unstructured, free time, including a full hour for lunch. I asked the teacher what the students were going to do with all that time down in their downtown basement office space? He said the hour would simulate a break room in an office, where workers leisurely eat lunch and chat with co-workers.

I read the email to Steve and both of us had the same reaction: “What’s a Break Room?”

Here’s how lunch works for us — remotely or in the office — we get up from our computers where we have been sitting for four hours, find a sandwich or a salad, eat in front of the computer, keep working for five hours. There are no “break rooms” in any office that we’ve worked at. No hour-long breaks! Holy crap! What do people do with that time? It sounds awful.

I just got back from a jog with a friend and told her about this mysterious thing called a “break room.” The friend said, “what are you talking about, Laura? I’ve never worked a job without a break room.” Her family does blue collar work – maintenance, bussing, nursing. Jobs where you punch in on a clock and would never put in extra time at your job. I asked my friend what people do with those sixty minutes at lunch, and she laughed at me. She said they go for walks, check email, or whatever.

Not only have I never had a full hour for lunch, a designated lunch time, or a break room, but beyond some college summer gigs, I never had jobs where I punched a clock or had firm boundaries about work time. Steve and I pretty much work all the time, though for different reasons. I’ve always been lucky enough to do work that I love — teaching, writing, selling books on the Internet, blogging…– so I enjoy working all the time. If I wake up in the middle of the night with insomnia, sometimes I’ll check yesterday’s edits from the editor on Google docs and make changes on my iPhone. Many jobs don’t even earn money (this), but I still do it anyway. Steve works a lot, because his job expects it. And the more work that he does leads to more money and promotions.

And I watch Ian, our son with autism, doing the same thing. He spends 10-12 hours every day creating massive databases of information about video games, which are his passion. It’s all in charts with code and hyperlinks on various video game wikis. I have no idea if anybody looks at what he creates. He also spends hours remastering music on various music-tech programs. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of stupid Internet memes. On Saturdays, he HAS to listen to his entire music library, which is about 12 hours long; it’s an OCD-thing which his therapist is trying to help him stop.

So, is Ian emulating us? Or are modern workers a little autistic? I’m not sure, but it sure is a huge culture gap.

16 thoughts on “What’s A Break Room?

  1. It’s not just blue collar – when I did secretarial temping, and when I worked full-time as an administrator/secretary for a year after college, there were break rooms. I used to sometimes eat lunch in the break room, and sometimes go for a walk, or drive somewhere and get lunch. The admins did this but some of the regular professional staff did too – which is nice (I could have transitioned into one of those jobs pretty easily if I’d wanted to stay there.) You can’t (or mostly don’t) just get up from your cubicle desk and wander around or go outside during the day.

    At the best summer temp job I ever had, during grad school, where I did admin/paralegal-type stuff at a law firm, they were in a large office complex with an outdoor swimming pool. I worked in the mornings and then sat by the pool and worked on my theological German homework in the afternoon.

    Of course in those days no one had a phone that they could use to entertain themselves at their desks.

    We have a break room at school with a fridge and microwave, but no one hangs out there. I’m about to microwave something and bring it back to my desk.

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  2. Clearly a lot of us spend a lot of time interacting with our screens. But, a workplace where people did not interact at lunch? In my workplaces, that was actually going somewhere for lunch (hospital cafeterias, . . . ). I only started seeing that at the late 2000s.

    I’ve never had a job with firm limits about work. The ones I know of are all jobs where you are *not* sitting at a computer. Health care (nurses, but also physicians assistants, physicians, . . . .), service work, construction, . . . A college student I know is planning on becoming a physician’s assistant because she wants to have a time limited job and then pursue other interests with the rest of her time.

    One thing about creative endeavors (I don’t call them jobs unless I’m getting paid, and I don’t like to get paid for anything now, because then it wold be a job) is that lots can be thought of as contributing to the endeavor. For example, I used to relax by downloading large sets of images in the old days, that I used for my experiments.

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  3. I consider unpaid labor as “work.” Women’s work has historically been undervalued because it is unpaid. I believe that cooking dinner and doing laundry is work. Unpaid work, such as blogging, has lead to paid work at various magazines. Because Ian is finally in school full time, I about to tackle the horrible task of getting him qualified for SSI. I won’t get paid for that, but spending months and months filling out paperwork is not fun and I very much consider that to be “work.”

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  4. Hard to imagine someone who would consider filling out SSI paperwork “creative” and fulfilling (certainly not me). The person might exist (my spouse definitely gets a sense of satisfaction out of doing our taxes), but certainly that is work and not a creative endeavor.

    And, I’m definitely not trying to chose other people’s words for job, work, and fun for them. For me, the difference is that when the work is a job I have to satisfy someone other than myself. And my life is now arranged so that not much that I do is done to satisfy others, probably a mix of my privilege and personality.

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  5. In a lot of my post college jobs in the corporate world I was “non-exempt” so I always took lunch breaks away from my desk. In the late 80s and early 90s it was not as common to work through lunch as it is now. Sometimes I ate in the break room but usually I wandered downtown San Francisco, and browsed bookstores or met friends. Today the break room is usually where the fridge, coffee/beverages and microwaves are. People chat while heating up lunch.

    Since the late 90s not taking lunch has become super common in offices (except for lower level, non-exempt classified workers). I remember in the late 90s San Francisco Starbucks having annoying advertising about their grab and go lunches that kind of glamorized the long dot-com work day. Interestingly, my co-workers from Asia tend to get together each day to eat their brown bag lunches together. I asked about that and one told me it was “sad” in her culture to eat alone. Often it’s just 20-25 minutes but they really like the social aspect.

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  6. NY times just ran an article on remote workers who got and quit their jobs before they ever met their co workers. The article cites lack of connections (and ie “break rooms”) in the NY Times way (ie without evidence)

    But I found it interesting. If I were going to work (ie try to produce work judged by others), I’d want connection.

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  7. Trying to look at this from a Danish/Scandinavian perspective (I teach at a school for social work). The 29-minute (!) lunch break for state employees was a massive bone of contention at the collective bargaining round in 2018. Eventually the government had to dissolve the agency responsible for employment relations (well, there were other issues involved. The Danish state in general screwed up massively regarding relations with state employees during the 2010s but that’s a story for another day)

    Break rooms, yes. They are called Oases at our campus (what does this make the offices and classrooms?). When we moved in, staff were officially not allowed to have lunch in the Oases but were supposed to eat in the central canteen. Guess how that turned out.

    Btw: In practice the last class of the morning ends at 12:00 and the first class of the afternoon begins at 12:45. And we often have to schedule meetings during that break.

    Obviously, the situation varies depending on where you work. My mother worked at a hospital nurse and despite officially having a lunch break often had to eat her sandwiches during the gap between looking after two patients. And she frequently didn’t have time to eat during a shift. Nurses do live of black coffee.

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    1. Always good to hear the facts on the ground. If someone had asked me where nurses got to eat lunch, I would have said the mythical Scandinavia folks cite here in the US.

      In the US, they sometimes get to drink smoothies in addition to the black coffee.

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  8. “ He said the hour would simulate a break room in an office, where workers leisurely eat lunch and chat with co-workers.”

    To stay more post related, I would wonder if the space/break will be facilitated?

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  9. On construction sites, we always make our own “break room”, and outfit it with whatever we want (electricians do it right: coffeemakers, microwaves, fridge, heater if it’s cold outside, tables, chairs, lighting, a full complement of hot sauces and other seasonings, plates and silverware, paper towels, etc.) I was on a job in Omaha where a crew made a deluxe coffee cart from scrap wood and conduit, with a werewolf logo stylized in the Starbucks fashion, but called “Nightbucks” (we were on night shift). They had two pots on constantly, and a Keurig available too. All the typical Starbucks coffee fixings (even chocolate sauce). The crew I was on got told to tone it down—we made a break room like a cafe, using empty wire spools as tables, throwing red-and-white-checked tablecloths on them, electric candles, salt and pepper shakers, seasonal table decorations. Of all things, it was the tablecloths that were the most triggering to the general contractor.

    Breaks are necessary for mental health, and break rooms are awesome.

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    1. I love this description of making a place of comfort (and joy). There a printing company that had “T-shirts build teams”. Hope the Nighbucks tshirt did its job.

      My academic department used to design tshirts every year and they were memorable.

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    2. One of my friends posted a picture on social media yesterday. They’re having work done at their house, and one of the workers brought a small microwave, plugged it in on their front stoop, and sat down to each lunch. Not quite as fancy as the break rooms you’re describing, but proof you can make a break room anywhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The office I worked in in the 90s had a break room, and I miss it. The socialization at lunch was one of the high points of the day, and people celebrated your birthday, learned about each other’s families, shared vacation photos, etc. It was far superior to my current white-collar profession where everyone acts like they are too busy/too important to chat with you. When we are in a Zoom meeting, however, somehow everyone has time to write snarky DMs throughout the meeting…

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  11. My office, a state municipal league, has a nice big kitchen/ break room for employees. In the pre-covid times, I’d eat with a few of my colleagues every day. I miss it, and hope we can get back to that if I have to go in to the office.

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