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A plate of eggs becomes a stand-in, a reminder that you are to take a break at work.
One of my favorite Instagram posts is a picture of breakfast food.
Someone from the Gimme Coffee Barista Union, the first-ever unionized barista group, posted a picture of a plate of eggs. The eggs were flecked with hot sauce, served with a side of toast. The caption reads, “We are actually going to take our 30-minute breaks.”
If you’ve worked a shift-based job, you’ve certainly felt guilty about taking a break. Although some jobs have breaks built into their schedules—and in many states, you’re required to take a break after a certain amount of time—I can guess that almost every person reading this has ignored a break you were perfectly in the right to take.
I would also guess you’ve ignored your breaks because you felt bad for taking it.
In most service-based jobs, we are set up to feel two things:
One: We are set up to equate hard work with being physically present. Eight hours of work often means eight hours of working on the floor. Ignoring basic needs becomes a badge of honor. We get angry with our coworkers when we see them ducking off the floor, internalizing their absence as not working as hard as we do.
Two: We feel bad for asserting our right to take a break—or to call out sick, or to do anything that requires us to not be physically present. Because we equate working hard with being present, calling in sick feels like an admission of laziness.
Take this for example: have you ever gotten angry with a coworker when they call in sick? Or have you ever felt dread as you picked up the phone to call in sick yourself?
Guilt and shame show up a lot in how we view hard work in the service industry. Your boss tells you they need you on the floor even though you’re not feeling well. A co-worker gives you the side-eye when you step off the floor to take a 15. You contemplate sacrificing your lunch break when you see your coworkers getting crushed by a sudden rush.
I’m not advocating for being lazy—and the only reason I even feel the need to make this caveat is that laziness often gets ascribed to actions that are entirely normal and necessary. Everyone has to eat. Everyone has to sit down and take a break from work.
I’ve felt this anger for my coworkers. I’ve felt disdain for the person who calls in five minutes before their shift. I’ve also felt the apprehension, my hand shaking as it hovers over the phone, calling to let my boss know I’m not feeling well. But then I think about office workers or people who live outside the grind of shift-based jobs. If these folks can call in sick without feeling bad, why can’t I?
When calling in sick, I’ve worried about abandoning my coworkers. Being down a person on the floor can be crushing. But that’s conflating a systemic issue with personal responsibility. It’s saying I am somehow responsible for the precariousness of shift work, rather than questioning why we don’t make it easier for shifted employees to take time off.
Service work is, albeit unintentionally, designed to pit our own self-interest against the people we work closest with. We don’t question the system that makes a coworker calling in sick a potential fucking shitshow. Instead, we roll our eyes, communicating our resentment when they come to work the next day.
This tension serves employers. When we feel bad about taking time off, we do it less. And what’s especially insidious about this is that most employers aren’t doing anything over to make us feel bad about taking time for ourselves. This feeling doesn’t come from a boss telling you you can’t take a break. It’s internalized.
It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of showing up on days when we’re not feeling well. Or skipping a meal break because our coworkers need us, but what you’re really doing is serving the interest of a business. And it’s all under the radar.
These ideas are tricky to explain without seeming like I’m telling you to just not give a shit about the people around you. Of course I want you to be cognizant of your coworkers, but ignoring your needs for the sake of being present only serves the interest of a business. If a business is really serious about taking care of its workers, they’d find ways to make sure your friends aren’t mad at you for eating a piece of toast off the floor.
That’s why I love that picture of breakfast. It’s a radical dismantling of two ideas and posits a new and refreshing take—that hard work isn’t proven by sacrificing your well-being and that we should feel ok asserting our needs.
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