Q: I work in a busy office for an investment firm. We work long days. I truly enjoy what I do but sometimes I get overwhelmed. I am an administrative assistant for six great investment professionals. However, it is considered "weak" to take even a walk or a break during the day. Most of the professionals that I support arrive at work around 7am and work beyond 6pm or 7pm. I have a strong work ethic but I would like to take lunch or run an errand at lunch time. This is frowned up and discouraged. I don’t get it. It is strange. Some employees won’t admit if they even down to our cafeteria for coffee. And others have asked me to "cover for them" if they have a doctor’s appointment. Am I legally entitled to a break?
A: It sounds like you work in a challenging and demanding environment. Every organization has different cultural norms and practices. It sounds like your work environment is one where "face time" is important. Loosely defined, "face time" is when face-to-face interaction occurs. "Face time" not always an indicator of productivity or performance. In your situation, it sounds like you must show your face (and for many hours in the workday) in order for you to "count." I have worked in similar environments so I understand this dynamic. Sometimes in these environments, "face time" is viewed as all-important. Those who try to maintain some type of work balance are perceived as weak.
In my experience, these environments often lead to burnout and stress. Employees can often work in this type of environment for a period of time. Yet over the long-term, this type of work environment can be unhealthy.
Assuming you work in Massachusetts, you are entitled to a 30-minute meal break if you work more than six hours in a single shift. During your meal break, you should also be relieved of all work-related responsibilities and have the freedom to leave the premises. There are some industries like paper mills and letter press establishments that are exempt from this law but most industries are required to comply. Companies working in the financial services or investment services sector are required to comply with this law. If you choose to work through the meal break, you should be compensated for that time.
A 30-minute meal break sounds like a healthy and balanced way to re-charge the batteries. Even if others work through lunch, you should take the meal break to which you are entitled if choose to do so.
However, try to take your meal break when it is least disruptive to your colleagues. Nothing is more irritating than when you are working on a pressing deadline, you have finished your work and you approach your administrative assistant's desk only to find this person is off taking a lunch break. Sometimes it is helpful to understand the demands of the day before taking a lunch break. Is there a noon time deadline for a client? Is an important client coming in for lunch which may require you to take your lunch early or late? All of these questions can help prevent any "where were you when I needed you?" types of inquiries.