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More often than not, I eat my lunch at my desk. There aren't any shops or cafés nearby, so this suits me just fine. I usually put my headphones in and browse the news or SE to take a break from work.

Occasionally, colleagues will come over to discuss/ask about something we've been working on, despite there being a meal on my table and zero evidence of work on my screen. These queries normally take a couple of minutes (if that) to discuss, and wouldn't usually bother me.

Today however, I've had two people coming back and forth with work requests for the past 20 minutes; asking me to open various documents and make amendments then and there while they stood over my shoulder. As a result, my lunch has gone cold and is inedible. It seems like common courtesy to me to not disrupt somebody who is evidently on their lunch break. How can I interrupt a colleague, and stop them from discussing work with me until after my lunch break without being rude?

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Mithical Feb 21 '18 at 13:34

10 Answers 10

87

How can I interrupt a colleague, and stop them from discussing work with me until after my lunch break without being rude?

Especially if you're eating a hot meal, where I'm from (Netherlands) it's perfectly fine to say something like:

'Sorry, I'll be with you in < however long your lunch break will last >. Right now, I'd prefer to eat my meal before it gets cold. (Optionally) Or can't it wait until after lunch break?

It's what I did when I started the new job. I regularly have warm meals for lunch, and also eat them at my desk.

Acknowledge the fact that they have a question. Also, let them know that you're on a lunch-break now and that you won't work during that. Make a promise that their question will be handled as soon as your break is over. Ask them if it can wait, so that if it's really urgent, you can show some goodwill and do it anyway. This last point does carry the risk that everything will become urgent, so use at your own risk. Don't offer the option if you're not willing to risk someone using it.

The problem here is that you've been doing work (answering questions about work = also work) during lunch for a while now, so people will initially find it weird when you suddenly say 'not now, lunch'. If people look a bit strange, you can explain it to them the same as you did to us. Working during your break regularly leads to cold/inedible meals and you've decided that it was time for a change.

You need to be consistent about this: Either you don't answer any questions/do any work at all during lunch break, or you do all of it. So make a new boundary, communicate it patiently to people and stick to it, and in a few days/weeks/months people will get it, and hopefully come to your desk, see your lunch and ask "Hey Cthulhu, once your lunch is done, could you help me with this?" (which is what my co-workers do now)

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    Can confirm I am from the UK and this advice is good for the UK... – Chris Feb 20 '18 at 12:21
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    In the US and Canada, I can say in my experience this wouldn't be very warmly received. Eating at your desk indicates you're going to steal a few minutes to eat and quickly return to work. Again, YMMV, and certainly different cultures will respond differently. – corsiKa Feb 20 '18 at 23:31
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    @corsiKa I think that depends on where you work. I've worked in the US for 20 years and eaten at my desk and the workplaces I've been at, people walk up to each other with questions and then apologize and say they'll send an e-mail instead when they see you eating lunch. – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 '18 at 18:39
53

I had once the opportunity to work side-by-side with a database administrator that suddenly saw herself in a very similar situation.

She then printed a poster, not entirely unlike the following one, and started hanging it at the entrance of her office bay when it was lunch time:

"This isn't the DBA you're looking for. She's out for lunch and will be back around 1:00pm

It worked wonders. She got chuckles out of some, grunts out of others, but the lunchtime pestering ended. Your mileage may vary, though.

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    Defusing situations with proactive humor works better than tantrums or martyrdom. Clever woman. – Haunt_House Feb 21 '18 at 16:41
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This is the difference between lunch and a lunch break. You're getting your lunch but you're not getting a break! No wonder you're irritated.

If you are entitled to a break (and most people are, either by legislation or by local company policy) then it must be a break from working.

I understand your reasons for eating at your desk, but that doesn't mean it is the best thing to do; nor does it mean you can't change your routine if you wish to. Lots of people change their eating habits (for example beginning a new diet) and they don't owe anybody an explanation. You could find somewhere else to eat, or even eat at your desk and then take the remaining time out of the office, perhaps go for a walk?

If you must eat at your desk, don't feel bad about saying "I'm on my lunch, come back in 30 minutes" or similar. They will soon get the message, but you must be consistent in your stand. If anybody mentions that you used to allow interruptions just tell them that you don't anymore (although I can't imagine anyone doing this).

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    Entitled to a break? I'm forced to take a break, my employer won't allow me to work 8 hours straight (and be productive only during the first 5 of them). – Hans Janssen Feb 19 '18 at 16:22
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    @Geliormth That's a pretty reasonable thing for your employer to stop you from doing. – Azor Ahai Feb 19 '18 at 18:55
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    In some jurisdictions you're required by law to take breaks/lunch breaks, a requirement you cannot waive... even for someone like myself who tends to not eat at work. I still had to stop working and go sit in the break room for the allotted time. Otherwise, the company could be fined. – TemporalWolf Feb 20 '18 at 21:00
  • According to Brendon Burchards book: high performance habits, short 5 minute breaks every hour are boosting performance even when powering through feels cooler. Also, if breaks are mandatory, you can plan to do something completely different yet benefitial besides eating. – Haunt_House Feb 21 '18 at 16:47
  • I realize there are much higher rated answers with clever lifehacky solutions, but this is the answer. If you want a break, don't be sitting in the place people go to when they need you for work. That's just setting everyone involved up for frustration. Any office should have a break room or lunch room. If its nice, just go outside and sit somewhere. If you don't want to eat, take a walk. – T.E.D. Feb 21 '18 at 22:26
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I used to be the one on the other end of this kind of situation. Where I worked, in various companies, it was normal to eat at the desk and it was often unclear if that person was working+eating or having a break.

In any case, in the line of work I am in, it's pretty inappropriate to interrupt someone at their desk anyway. You always have to start any interaction with something like:

"Excuse me, do you have a second?"

Working in anything administrative or white collar, it's a real pain if someone interrupts your train of thought, never mind your lunch. (This is why I am militantly opposed to open space offices. I think they are the bane of modern society. )

I used to be the tactless one who walked up to people and just launched into technical questions, and these are the kinds of responses it would have been reasonable to expect (UK).

"For Chrissakes I am eating are you blind?"

"I am having my lunch."

"Get lost I am eating."

"Sorry, I am having a break right now."

"Please, let me enjoy my food, I don't want to think about work right now."

These are what I would call typical, and normal responses in a UK work environment. Frankly, and rightly so. If you want to tone it down, go ahead. Politeness often helps (but often not!)

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    I wonder what exactly is achieved by being unnecessarily rude, as in "Get lost!" – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 21 '18 at 15:22
  • Respect for one thing. – Sentinel Feb 22 '18 at 20:19
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    If by "respect" you mean being left alone, then yes. – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 23 '18 at 12:33
  • Having said that though, it depends on the style of who you are or the style you want to project. Shouting Get lost may or may not be for everyone. – Sentinel Feb 24 '18 at 2:46
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    "Get lost" should be reserved for repeat offenders. After "I'm on my lunch break", "I told you before I was on my lunch break", "What's so hard to understand about 'I'm on my lunch break'", and "Don't come ever again during my lunch break". At that point it would be necessarily rude. – gnasher729 Dec 23 '18 at 16:03
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Does your workplace not provide "break out" areas, or a canteen or social space? I think the only long term solution to this - if you want to stop people approaching you while you are eating - is to avoid eating at your desk. Even if some people eventually learn that you eat between X - Y time and you don't like being disturbed, new staff and those unfamiliar with your personal habits aren't going to know this. In most places I've ever worked, "being at your desk" equals "I'm working", regardless of what you are doing at the time.

If you can find a quiet place to sit, away from your normal work area, then have your lunch there instead. Use your phone/laptop for music and browsing the net if that's what you like to do. I just don't think there is a polite and lasting solution that will enable you to remain at your desk without risk of being disturbed. I've had the same problem in the past and finding somewhere else to eat was ultimately how I solved it.

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I would recommend sending quick email note just letting your immediate co-workers know that you care about their productivity and want them to be able to continue working while you are at lunch but unless it is an incredibly urgent issue to please just send you an email while you are at lunch. I would try to add a bit of humor and perhaps a cute meme to keep it light and humorous to avoid making anyone feel as though you are annoyed with them.

When you send a general comment in this way it will get the reminder out there without making any one person feel singled out. You may have to remind co-workers a couple of times when they come over to you during lunch. Be sure to counter a reminder that you are eating your lunch with the fact that you are happy to help them but you just need to take your break to recharge and if it can wait for you to finish you would really appreciate it.

Don't expect your co-workers to know when you are at lunch and do your best to be consistent with your lunch times if you can. You don't want to be needlessly bothered, but if there is a fire in the building you don't want your co-workers to be nervous about interrupting your meal to tell you. You need to communicate when you feel they should come to you and what situations are less urgent and can wait or work out a system with another senior worker to stagger your lunches so you could cover for each other if that is something that would work.

It will be more effective to tell your co-workers how to best request your help rather than to tell them don't bug me. Put a system in place that will work for you to better triage their requests and give them a course of action if they feel they need help while you are at lunch. You want to empower them rather than make them feel like they are bothersome. Sometimes just writing a question out via email answers the question so this might help to eliminate some of the requests right from the beginning.

  • Hey, welcome, and thanks for the answer! Can you please explain exactly why you think that this is a good idea? Why do you say to take this course of action? What’s the thought process behind this answer? As this currently stands, this is essentially a “Try this!” answer. We require that answers provide some sort of explanation for why they are suggesting this solution, and unfortunately, at the moment this answer doesn't appear to do that. – Mithical Feb 19 '18 at 17:39
  • I wasn't sure if I should put the explanation as a new comment so I just edited my original post. Is this a little more in line with what you were looking for? Thank you for the feedback. – Rachel Riley Feb 19 '18 at 17:58
  • It's currently a little hard to read; would you mind breaking it up into paragraphs? But yes, it looks a little better now ;) – Mithical Feb 19 '18 at 17:59
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The issue here, which has been pointed out, is that you're sat at your desk during your lunch. This indicates to everyone, regardless of the food on your desk or StackExchange on your screen, you could possibly still be working.

The further issue is, as well, it sounds like this has happened for a while. It also sounds like you've answered those questions. So you've set the standards for your colleagues: even if I have food on my desk and no work on my screen, I'm available for work talk

I've had this happen to me, and the "best" way to deal with it was to be short with them. As soon as they've asked the question, I would reply, bluntly, "Can you not see that I'm on my break?". More often than not, I would be told that they thought I was working because I was at my desk.

From my point of view, the only solution is to remove yourself from your desk for your lunch. This isn't always possible I know, especially where I work, but I often drive to a car park nearby and read a book, or I walk around the block and listen to something. The positive to this is that I feel more refreshed when I get back to work and I actually feel like I've had a break.

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Put up a (highly visible) sign. "Out to lunch. Do not disturb. Back shortly." Take it down when you're done. They'll get the message. Especially if you ignore them. Why this instead of talk? OP does not want to be disturbed/interrupted. Needing to respond verbally is itself an interruption. If colleagues read the sign there does not even have to be any disturbing interaction/conversation. "Interpersonal" sometimes includes "Please leave me alone." If the concern is "I want a break from thinking specifically about work", that could be included in the sign, but that might taken as a license to talk about sports or politics. My experience is that without a very strong and definitive boundary, that boundary will not be respected.

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    Hey, welcome, and thanks for the answer! Can you please explain exactly why you think that this is a good idea? Why do you say to take this course of action? What’s the thought process behind this answer? As this currently stands, this is essentially a “Try this!” answer. We require that answers provide some sort of explanation for why they are suggesting this solution, and unfortunately, at the moment this answer doesn't appear to do that. Also, we require answers to be an interpersonal solution; this doesn't appear to be one to me. – Mithical Feb 19 '18 at 17:50
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    I would consider this rather rude. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Feb 19 '18 at 19:31
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    @AytAyt Especially if you ignore them > would be considered rude here as well ;) mickeyf: Can you explain why that wouldn't be rude? Cthulhu asks for a way to get through to their colleagues without being rude... – Tinkeringbell Feb 21 '18 at 9:04
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My thoughts align with Will Appleby and mickburkejnr, but I'm going to take a more hardline approach than they and others have in their answers.

You are at your desk, in the office, during business hours? Yup, you're at work. If I have a problem that needs urgent fixing, and the person responsible for that fixing is in the office, I am going to ask them to fix it. If it is really urgent, I have no problem looking over their shoulder and having them do it while I wait.

There's another problem than than just you making yourself available, you are also distracting others who are working. Food smells - especially if you're eating a hot meal - internal vocalisation on news you read, scrunching up food wrapping materials etc, all contribute to decreased productivity. Studies show 15 minutes of 'in-the-zone' time can be lost when concentration is broken. This is especially the case in open plan/partitioned offices which I'm guessing you have as otherwise the solution is simply 'close the door'.

Even if you don't get interrupted by other staff, as Astralbee points out, you are still having lunch, not a lunch break, if you are sitting on your work chair, at your work desk, using your work computer. For your health, it's far better to be in a different (non-work) environment when you are taking a break from work.

So, in short, do the right thing by yourself and your colleagues. Don't eat lunch at your desk. Just don't do it. This seems like common courtesy to me.

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    It’s the norm within my office to eat at your desk, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I’d say around 90% of staff have their lunch at their desk. My question was referring to when I am interrupted and how to deal with that, rather how to avoid being interrupted in the first place. – Cthulhu Feb 21 '18 at 6:07
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    This answer assumes there are other places to go. This is not always the case. Unless the company has facilities, this seems unfair. – David Feb 21 '18 at 8:56
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    @David Precisely - I did state that there are no shops or cafés nearby. Eating lunch in the middle of a street during winter doesn't exactly appeal to me! – Cthulhu Feb 21 '18 at 9:30
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From my personal experience, hanging around the work desk to take advantage of lunch hours does not lend well to be left in peace about work. Some people won't get it. Even if staying inside it is better off to head to the cafeteria, or to designated places for eating (if any).

One possibility that other answers do not cover is enlisting the help of other closer workmates that have different hours for eating for "indoctrination"; when people popped by at lunch hours searching for workmates I asked them in polite terms why they were searching them at lunch time.

Back in my last work, we dealt with a lot of different kind of departments, and bureaucracy was not that rigid, so we had often lots of people searching for us, including during lunch breaks.

Usually what we did, especially when people were searching for colleagues, or people directed to us by the helpdesk, was saying "he is in a lunch break". We were not rude, however, we also said in a way as kind "he is supposed to be on his lunch break". With people which I were more used to deal with (which was a lot), I usually said "You know it is our lunch time, right?". Usually that was even more effective when someone else was saying that.

People usually said they would come back later on, and over time we had less people coming or sent our way during lunch breaks.

  • Hey there. Could you please explain why you think that enlisting their help would help solve OP's issue? We expect answers to come with at least a bit of explanation. Thanks in advance! – avazula Dec 27 '18 at 9:42
  • Perhaps I am not that clear using the word indoctrination... Basically when people ask for work. I used to point out "don't you know it is lunch time?" I was not the only one. You have got to have an united front. People understand we are not robots and need breaks – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 27 '18 at 9:46
  • No, I understood what you suggest as a solution, no worries :) what I'm looking for is an explanation on why what you suggest would help OP to make clear they do not want to be bothered during lunch time. It seems like you tried this, how did it go? Why did it work in your case? This is valuable information for OP and could help them considering trying your suggestion. – avazula Dec 27 '18 at 9:59
  • @avazula Edited it a bit more. – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 27 '18 at 19:38

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