Lunchtime liberation?

Workers are spending less time at lunch and more time at their desks, which could spell disaster for an employee’s health and wellness, relationships with co-workers, and overall productivity.

Lunch used to be a welcome reprieve during the long workday, a convenient excuse to get away from your desk or out of the office for 30 minutes or an hour to grab a bite to eat, some fresh air, and recharge your mental batteries. Some older workers were even lucky enough to experience the halcyon days of the three-martini lunch.

Now? Many workers aren’t even leaving their desks for lunch. They’re also taking shorter lunch breaks, according to results from a new survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam, which shows the average lunch break now lasts 39 minutes — down from 43 minutes in 2014.

The popularity of screen time has grown in the past four years, as well: Aside from eating, 52% of employees surf the web or social media during lunch, and 51% catch up on personal calls or emails. Those stats have nearly doubled from the 2014 survey (27% and 25%), where socializing with colleagues was the top response.

So, what do most workers do on their lunch break?

  • 52% surf the internet or social media
  • 51% catch up on personal calls or emails
  • 47% socialize with coworkers
  • 32% read
  • 32% run errands
  • 30% exercise or take a walk
  • 29% work

What may seem trivial — who cares how employees spend their lunch break? — could, in fact, be detrimental to employee health and wellness, relationships with co-workers, and overall productivity.

“This is a very complex issue,” notes Debra Lafler, an employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, as well as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. “If we’re saying workers may be spending even less time getting away from their desks, the first inquiry to this would be to ask employees, ‘why?’ In most cases, they likely will say workload. However, there are follow up questions — is that perceived or actual workload? Is that meetings, emails, or other? To intervene, we could help the employee with time management skills, how to prioritize, how to delegate, how to say no to things, and so on.  If it's actual workload, then employers need to assess the needs of hiring more people to handle the workload, so as not to burn employees out.

“But — and you may be thinking this already — these are the obvious and surface answers,” adds Lafler. “There are deeper issues at play.”

Lafler says there are many reasons why employees may be opting to lunch at their desks, and there are likely different reasons for every employee, but there are three major things that are happening culturally that could be the cause.

First, technology addiction. Recent research on addiction is finding that the notification of an email message, voicemail message, page, text, or social media post act on the same neural-pathways as drug addiction, according to Lafler. It's a stimulus-response loop that provides a reward. What reward? For the brain/body, it’s the feel-good biochemicals that are released (i.e., dopamine). However, the deeper question is, are there other emotional, spiritual, and social needs being met, too? It may be related to us being important, included, wanted, needed, interacted with, and getting a task completed.

Second, cultural values and perceptions. “In our culture, work is priority and social or personal time is secondary,” notes Lafler. “Work is a value, and social and personal time is looked at as a luxury. If we are working, we are seen as professional, diligent, responsible, and important. If we are spending time socially or personally (not working), we are seen as goofing-off, playing, or wasting time. These are cultural perceptions that are powerfully affecting our behavior.”

This is most often seen as the status or level of importance of a person goes up in a company, explains Lafler. For example, those with the most responsibility (managers, directors, senior directors, etc.) usually take even fewer breaks than others, and often respond to emails at night or in the early morning (outside of work hours). This behavior, while seemingly valuable, actually reinforces the idea that if you are important, you are busy; so busy that you can’t get all your work done while you are at work.

Third, interpersonal relationships. Do your employees like or relate to their co-workers? Do they feel included and a part of the team or culture? If not, employers could assess if there are things they can do to help the employee feel a part of the team or culture, Lafler recommends. Do employees feel comfortable socially interacting in general? This last question is important, Lafler says, because in our society, especially with the expansion of technology (emails, chats, cell phones with texting, etc.), there is increasingly less face-to-face interpersonal conversations, so people are becoming more socially anxious, nervous (or unskilled) at holding conversations, and uncomfortable in the physical presence of others.

So, what can employers do about these things?

  1. Assess workload and be sure it is adequately assigned, and get help for those that need help.
  2. Provide training for time management and prioritization to employees, so they can take charge of their schedule to handle their workload while also taking breaks.
  3. Encourage managers to have standing huddles or walking meetings, instead of sit-down meetings, to get everyone moving.
  4. Encourage managers, directors, and senior directors to take their breaks, and be seen doing so. Not only for their own health and well-being, but also because they are the role models for the other employees.
  5. Create a “no work outside of work hours” policy (e.g., no emails after 5 p.m.), so that employees are encouraged to get work done at work, and when they are not at work, to be present with their personal lives.
  6. Provide training in diversity and inclusion, so that everyone can be mindful of helping everyone feel included in the team and culture.
  7. Provide interpersonal conversation training, practicing how to have in-person conversations with others.
  8. Provide education on technology addiction and the brain, and how to intervene.
  9. Provide education on the importance of taking breaks, eating lunch outside of the office, walking/moving, and interpersonal interaction for health and well-being.



Losing out at lunchtime

Whatever gains employees might think they’re making by working — or “working” in they’re actually just surfing the web — at their desks during lunch, they’re probably losing much more, says Lafler.

“From a wellness perspective, we can look at this physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and socially,” Lafler states. “Physically, the body needs to move throughout the day to maintain its health. We spend too much time sitting in our culture (at work, driving, and at home), not walking enough, and doing things like taking elevators instead of stairs. Our bodies are becoming deficient in movement in general, which is putting us at risk for physical conditions (like back pain, joint pain, muscle weakness, etc.), and health conditions (like cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, etc.).

“Intellectually, our brains need a break, too. We can only focus our attention for so long before we get weary. We tend to know this but still find ourselves not taking breaks. We falsely assume that we need to push through, but when we do take a break and come back to our work, we find that we can concentrate better, we feel more creative, or able to problem solve, and actually get more work done than had we not taken a break.

“Emotionally, we also need breaks to rest and recharge. Our ability to be present, mindful, process thoughts and feelings, maintain calmness, and respond to others, rather than react, is greatly affected by our workload and if we've taken breaks. The longer we work without breaks, the more challenging it is to be mindful, process emotions, and the shorter our fuse. Taking breaks helps us get out of ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and resets us.

“Spiritually, we need the space to get in touch with our spirit, our sense of self, away from the chaos of the day. We need moments of quietness to center ourselves. The human spirit is regenerated by quietness, gentle movement, sunshine, nature, and love. Love as in genuine interpersonal interaction that is of a loving nature. This brings us to the social component.

“Socially, for our physical health and mental well-being, we need social interaction and love. We know that when babies are isolated from caregivers, they ‘fail to thrive.’ Well, it’s true for us adults, as well. When adults are isolated from others, we also fail to thrive. Isolation and loneliness puts us more at risk for developing both mental and physical health conditions than eating poorly or not moving enough. We don’t talk about this enough in our culture. We usually focus on the tenets of health as being only about physical activity and nutrition. It’s so much more than that. As humans, we are social beings. We need love and belongingness to thrive.”

What benefits might workers be missing out on from not being more social with their co-workers throughout the workday? According to Lafler:

  1. Practicing in-person interpersonal interaction because we are less practiced with this due to technology. Practicing body posture, breathing, eye contact, listening, and the art of conversation.
  2. Giving us a break from work and allowing us to just be ourselves — social, fun, and playful.
  3. Connecting with others on our team — getting to know each other, feeling closer, and getting to know everyone’s personalities and strengths, so that we can work better together.
  4. Providing a sense of belonging to the group, team, and office culture.
  5. Allowing us to connect with others on things unrelated to work, on a personal level, and feel out possible friendship.

Model managers

In order to truly convince employees that they will benefit from getting away from their desks at lunch, managers must walk the talk themselves, advises Lafler. “They are the role models for their employees. They must be seen taking their breaks and their lunch away from their desks, and not answering emails outside of work hours. They must also encourage employees to do the same, and mean it — not just say it to say it, but believe in it.”

If managers notice that their employees are not taking breaks/lunch, or working overtime often, they should have a heart-to-heart chat with them, encouraging them to take breaks for their own health and well-being, recommends Lafler. However, forcing employees to do so isn’t the way to go, either. That will usually backfire and foster resentment and lower morale.

One idea is that managers could have a wellness coach/consultant, or trainer from the training department or the employee assistance program, come in to educate everyone on the importance of taking breaks for health, well-being, and productivity. They could also forward articles that they see/read on the topic.

“But less formally,” suggest Lafler, “they could aim to foster a culture of social connection, and provide opportunities for social gathering, play, or fun on a regular basis. Taking the team to lunch; taking a half-day or full-day team building retreat (outside the office); passing on information about worksite or local lunch-time opportunities (lunch-and-learn talks, meditation, yoga classes, etc.), and inviting employees to attend things (and giving them permission and the time to do so).”

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