When I first began working with my father he had one full-time employee. The employee was a friend of his, a very highly educated Ethiopian man. On the days when my father was in office, he and this staff member would properly break twice a day. Once for lunch, where like civilized people, they would sit in the kitchen and eat their meals together; sometimes sharing when someone’s lunch was bigger than the others. For their second break, one would walk over to the local convenience store and buy coffee for the both of them. They would enjoy their meksis (afternoon/before dinner snack) and wax poetic about politics, the Church, or life back home. Meanwhile I, admittedly, was agitated that they had the nerve to have another break.
I’ve been thinking a lot about meksis. When I worked at a newspaper several years ago, in Addis, there was sort of a ritualized element behind the glorious second break of the day. Depending on your work environment and the hours you worked, you may go with your co-workers to the local cafe or beer garden and have a breather before returning to work. If you had a 9-5, you would meet up with your buddies who worked locally and maybe grab a light dessert or snack before heading home to eventually settle in and have dinner with your family. For those who would return back to work it was a good way to reset and feel a bit more energized.
For me, I would meksis because the electricity would go out and the generator wasn’t working. One time I went to the local movie theater and caught a new release film. After returning to work and finding the same conditions, I left. At that time, I found it to be so extravagant. Almost lackadaisical. How do you just leave work to hang out? Do you really think when you get back from work you’re going to be focused or would you probably bum around the office until it’s time to go?
This week, every day (…well every other day), I decided to walk away from my desk and either take a walk or go out for lunch. What I found was that when I returned, I felt a bit more of a push to finish the day stronger. I felt less stressed and more motivated to complete whatever task I had unfinished. While on my break I felt more human. I don’t know of any other way to describe it, but I felt like I was a living thing beyond my labor. The days I didn’t break, I felt it too selfish to do so. This culture of being chained to your desk and leaving for a break, even lunch, as being extravagant is harmful. Why, in America, are we not expected to properly have a break from work?
When I was working in New York, no one took a break. You could easily work a 15-hour day and to step away from your desk for 30 minutes to take a damn breather, and when you returned people would react like you went to Neiman’s to go shopping. The reality is that hours worked does not necessarily correlate to productivity. And what many employers fail to realize is that when productivity is low, there is little incentive to increase pay which results in high turnover. In the end you are paying for the lack of compensation and not incentivizing productivity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics we are in one of the slowest growth periods, for productivity, since the Great Recession. I do not think it would be unreasonable to attribute this, in some way, to poor work environments caused by long hours worked.
If someone can perform a task in one hour, after having taken a break, versus someone who has been working non-stop that may require two hours; how much money are you wasting? A 30-min paid break is cheaper than that extra hour of paid labor. Not to mention a happier employee will likely result in higher retention rates. Employee turnover is a cost not often discussed, but the time and energy that goes into interviewing, hiring, and training; not to mention the effect it has on company morale can have an adverse impact in the long term.
While a formal lunch hour break won’t work for our office, I will be encouraging staff to take their breaks when comfortable for them. And I must absolutely lead by example, because I hardly leave my seat for a bathroom break let alone leaving the office. And while I still do have some reservations around meksis, admittedly, the act of breaking, with or without friends is absolutely integral to work productivity and mental health. So no, there is no meksis in America, and in many ways it’s to our own detriment.