The Tyranny of the Work Lunch

Please don't make me socialise with colleagues.
Woman sat alone attable eating
Photo: Sunik Kim

Ah, lunchtime. The sweet reward for getting through the morning. The highlight of the working day, even. A window for you to kick back, microwave some leftovers and scroll through Instagram for a bit. Unless, that is, your colleagues suggest grabbing lunch together. Oh, the inhumanity! The expectation to smile, chat, and maintain your workplace persona for an extra half hour, before trooping back to your desk without having watched a single reel!


The question is: Why do some co-workers love a work lunch so much? Doesn’t Sharon in marketing want some down time too?

“I only started here yesterday and I’m thinking of how I’m going to resign already,” a girl announces while walking down the street, in the recent viral video clip below. Fleeing the scene of her new job, she says it’s “because they wanna do lunch with me – every single day – you don’t want me to have privacy, like? Every single day you wanna go grab lunch with me?”

Like most viral videos in this glorious modern age of ours, the responses were divided. Some people took her words – “I’ve got phone calls to make, I wanna be on IG scrolling” – as a declaration for job-sick Gen Z workers everywhere. But others took a less rosy view. “Wait,” one person commented, “if you just started yesterday maybe they’re just being welcoming so you feel more part of the team.”

Career development coach Sheila Starr takes this view, too. “It is hilarious that someone would consider leaving a job after one day because her colleagues have been kind to her,” Starr tells VICE. “It’s absolute madness to slag off your coworkers on your first day for wanting to make you feel welcome,” she says. “If this is how some younger people live, I believe it will have a detrimental effect on them as they go through the challenges that life and jobs throw at them, leading to more mental health issues.”


Freddie Feltham, producer at The News Movement, is more sympathetic though. “I get why this clip has gone viral,” he says, “the work lunch can, as the name suggests, still be work.” This seems to be the main rub: Is the work lunch lunch or work? In other words, does hanging out with your colleagues on the walk back from Pret improve your work day, or does it feel like an expectation to keep churning over ideas for the afternoon meeting while quickly chowing down a chicken, pesto and rocket wrap?

“In the contracted ecosystem of the 9-5, the lunch hour is, and always will be, a protected habitat,” Feltham says. “It's an oasis where you can be reminded that the office is just that, and the real world is beyond its four walls.” Basically, the problem comes down to the much lauded but eternally elusive work-life balance. “If you don't have the respite of some non-work lunch time it can all feel a bit too much,” he says.

There is certainly mounting evidence that Gen Z is struggling to click with the traditional workplace. This year, The News Movement’s ‘A–Gen–Z Report’, done in collaboration with Oliver Wyman Forum, found that 60 percent of Gen Z agree that a job doesn’t need to be fulfilling. This might sound like a stoic acceptance of the fact that labouring within the capitalist machine is always going to feel deadening, but what it actually signals is a generation that’s totally checked out. The News Movement’s report found 80 percent are less engaged with day-to-day activities and 45 percent are likely to attend fewer work events.


Sure, Gen Z don’t live to work anymore, but does this actually mean we’re all just grinding out our days, clocking our hours, and totally compartmentalising our lives? Are we missing out on simple opportunities to make work a bit better? Like, having a laugh with a colleague while waiting to use the microwave, or having a bitch about the boss at the pub after work?

“I have strong views on work lunches,” 26-year-old Dylan, who’s name has been changed for privacy reasons, tells VICE. “When it was warm enough I would always go out and sit in a park or something, because I wanted to get away from the work space and also the conversations,” he says, with regards to his current job working for a travel firm. “But now it's cold so I have to stay inside. I do feel dread when people walk through the door, because I just want to chill on my own.”

This might sound like the kind of self-absorption that Gen Zs get mocked by boomers for, but Dylan explains that he doesn’t dread all conversations – just the ones that inevitably occur when you don’t actually have much in common with the people sharing your breakout room. “People can't help themselves and just end up talking about work during our precious all-too-short 30 minutes of relaxation,” he says.

Dylan recognises that socialising at work does have some benefits. “It's mad how you can have jobs where you are working together with someone but don't actually properly speak with them for months and months,” he says. “Lunchtime is an important time for that team bonding, which is cringe, but also makes the day-to-day of a job much less painful because everyone's on good terms.”


At the same time though, he’s noticed that the expectation to be social affects certain age groups differently. “I feel slightly older people, like 40 plus, just don't give a fuck,” he says. “They'll do what they want. Whereas us lot, we want to act as if we're not just waiting to get back on our phones.” Essentially, younger workers feel like they have to be outgoing and can’t decline work lunches, out of a desire to impress employers and the fear of being judged for a “lack of professionalism”.

It’s also worth taking into consideration the kind of work young people are doing. “My work is customer facing, from opening hours straight through,” Dylan says. By the time lunch rolls round, his social battery is spent; used up in interactions with customers. On the other hand, people who have office-based jobs with little opportunity for conversation might get to midday and crave some inane small talk. “When I was working from home I'd chat the ear off whichever of my flatmates came home first,” Dylan says. “But,” he qualifies, “I could also have lunch whenever I wanted and for as long as I wanted.”

“In my experience when people first start a new job they really need to feel included and part of the team,” Starr says. “This has a huge beneficial impact on teamwork and building relationships,” she argues. “It is also a great way to network, build connections and create career opportunities.”


But, crucially, she also says nobody should feel pressured into joining in. “If you prefer to do your own thing then you should feel comfortable to do that,” she says. “The question employers need to ask themselves is how can they provide quiet space and sociable spaces to meet the needs of all employees, and recognise that work should not encroach on personal time.”

Jill Cotton, career trends expert at Gumtree, also throws the issue back at employers. “Workplaces force people who wouldn’t naturally mix or be friends to spend an awful lot of time together. Trying to create a culture in which everyone feels comfortable enough to bring their full self to work can be hard,” she says. Like Starr, she believes the key is to make socialisation a choice. “As soon as company culture tips into mandated forced fun, employees will quickly switch off,” she says. “Being social at work should never feel like another job.”

Navigating how to mix work with socialising, and keep the ol’ work-life balanced, can feel like skipping through a minefield. Feltham suggests there is one easy fix though. “Develop a real friendship with your colleagues,” he says. “Chatting with a proper work mate is like living a normal life at work.” Perhaps this is all people can really hope for – until we overthrow the capitalist system that is.

Alexander Kjerulf, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo inc, chipped in with a slightly different solution. “If you find that you just don't want to spend any time with any of the people you work with, maybe it's a sign that you're in the wrong workplace and it's time to quit and find one where you fit in better,” he says. But just remember: However much you want to make phone calls and IG scroll, it’s probably best to give it more than one day before you throw in the towel.