Five things you should know about meal breaks and productivity

Five things you should know about meal breaks and productivity

Breaks are a controversial area of management and leadership, as the recent comments by Sydney Ports chief executive, Grant Gilfillan, remind us.

The Port could achieve a 20% increase in productivity by insisting that workers in the terminal stagger their lunch breaks, Gilfillan told the Australian Financial Review. He referred to practices of staggering meal breaks in the mining industry, but when contacted by LeadingCompany to explain how the changes could work, he was having the day off. His absence is not at odds with Gilfillan’s philosophy; he is not suggesting anyone work harder or miss their breaks or rostered days off, “It’s about coordinating the way people work,” he told the paper.

Productivity expert Saul Eslake, an economist at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, tells LeadingCompany that managers should think about the scheduling of work “all the time”. “It is management’s job to combine labour and capital to most efficiently produce goods and services,” he says.

1. Staggering breaks

    The mining industry uses staggered meal breaks as a way to keep core pieces of machinery running continuously. For over a decade, the mining industry has introduced practices such as hot seat changes, staggered meal breaks, meals in the field and refuelling machinery during breaks as a means to keep core equipment is kept running continuously.

    This is also relevant to the service industry, Eslake says, particularly when customers use their own lunch break to access those services.

    Any operation – services or products – can suffer from a bottleneck, Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures points out in an article on eliminating them. “Our operation is only as fast as our slowest process. To be successful, we need to target and eliminate bottlenecks.”

    2. Not every break is a good break

      Breaks are widely lauded as a productivity booster by consultants and researchers, but recent research has suggested otherwise. Recent research (reported in Leading Company) by Professor Charlotte Fritz of Portland State University found that short breaks, such as a coffee break, does not reinvigorate us and return us to the task with renewed energy unless we do something related to work in the break. A related task, such as praising another colleague, can deliver an energy boost, but looking at Facebook or making a personal call does nothing for your energy levels, and may even diminish them.

      3. Lunch breaks at the desk diminish productivity

        Eating food while answering calls and tapping the keyboard may look productive, but it isn’t according to research by the health insurance company, BUPA. A study of 1,000 workers last year suggested that productivity plummeted and workplace culture suffered, with at-the-desk lunch eaters feeling irritable and stressed.

        4. Sitting is bad for your health

          From BUPA research again, sitting at our desks all day without taking a break increases our risk of chronic disease and contribute to time lost due to sickness. It seems that even small movements like standing up to answer the phone, pacing or even fidgeting can helps us burn up quite a few extra kilojoules – as much as 1,400 kj a day – and have healthier blood sugar and blood fat levels, research by the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute and the Mayo Clinic has found.

          5. 40 hours is as good as it gets

            Back in the 1900s, the founder of the Ford Motors, Henry Ford, experimented with how productivity related to the hours worked in a day, and the days in a week. Ten hours delivered no more than eight hours, and six days no more than five days. And today’s “always on” world of work, in which staff pick up emails, texts and phone calls after hours reduces productivity a 2009 Stanford University study found. Being bombarded with lots of different types of electronic information reduces our attention span and prevents us from easily jump from task to task.


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