You Are Allowed To Take A Break 🍳

How a plate of eggs changed me as a service worker

One of my favorite Instagram posts is a picture of breakfast food.

A member of the Gimme Coffee Barista Union, the first group of baristas to ever unionize, based in Ithaca, New York, posted a picture of a plate of eggs (flecked with hot sauce) and toast, and in the caption talked about taking breaks during their shift and not feeling bad about doing so.

If you are working a shift-based job, you’ve probably 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 they were perfectly in the right to take. I would also guess that they ignored that break because they felt bad for taking it.

In most service-based jobs, we are set up to feel two things:

  1. We are set up to equate hard work with being present and sacrificing our own needs, and we get angry with our coworkers when we perceive them as not working as hard as we do.

  2. 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 in order to take care of ourselves. We are conditioned to put the needs of a business over our own needs as a sign of loyalty and dedication.

For example, have you ever felt yourself get angry when someone calls in sick? Likewise, have you felt the dread of picking up the phone to tell your boss you’re not feeling well and need to stay home (or, better yet, have you called them hesitantly and they’ve told you that they NEED you on the floor)? Have you ever felt a coworker give you the side eye when you step off the floor to take a 15? Would you sacrifice your lunch break if you saw your coworkers drowning in a line out the door?

I’m not advocating for being lazy—and the only reason I even use the word lazy in this context is because the association of taking care of yourself and laziness is so strong in the service industry. So let’s go beyond that association and try flipping things around. To the coworker who called in sick, I would ask, “why do we feel angry with them?” When your hand hovers over the phone as you call in sick, ask yourself, is my health worth sacrificing over serving the interests of a business? Think about office workers or people who don’t work shift-based jobs who can easily take a day off, and ask why we value their ability to call out of work over our friends and colleagues.

A typical response to these questions might be that, by calling in sick, a coworker leaves you abandoned in the trenches. Being down a person on the floor can be crushing. But did we design a system in which, by asserting our right to take care of ourselves, we create a burden for our friends and coworkers? No—we didn’t.

Regardless, the system of service work is designed to pit our own self-interest against the people we work closest with, and absolves the structural forces that designed this system of any wrongdoing.

You should not feel bad for taking care of yourself. If you need to eat, and you have time set aside in your shift for meal breaks and moments off the floor, take them.

This is easier said than done, obviously, because we’d be doing this already if it wasn’t. But often, the idea of taking care of our coworkers is conflated with the wellbeing of a business—and that conflation is used against us. And what’s so insidious about it is that it’s usually not overt. It doesn’t come from a boss telling you to take care of your coworkers and forget your 15-minute break: it’s fueled by your own sense of kindness and respect for others.  

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 we want to take care of our friends and colleagues, 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 new and refreshing takes—that hard work isn’t proven by sacrificing your wellbeing and that we should feel ok asserting our needs.

Our worth isn’t tied to our constant presence and continuous worth ethic. You can be a good worker and take a break during a busy time. You can be a good worker and call in sick. It’s time to break these ideas apart, and not feel like we have to show up and run ourselves into the ground to prove our value.