Managing

Nearly four million Australians regularly skip their lunch break: Why it’s a bad thing and what you can do about it

Myriam Robin /

Australia’s reputation as a land of ‘sickies’ and ‘smokos’ is far out of date, according to a survey by progressive think tank The Australia Institute.

The Institute surveyed over 1400 Australians, and found many said they routinely skipped lunch breaks.

Extrapolating the data out to Australia’s workforce, this suggests 3.8 million Australians regularly skip lunch to get work done.

Overwork seems to be the culprit. One in two of those who regularly skipped lunch told the Institute it was because they were “too busy”. Of those who do usually take lunch, 72% said they had eaten it at their desks, cut it short or postponed it well until the mid-afternoon in a bid to get through their workload.

The Institute’s executive director Richard Denniss tells SmartCompany company culture often contributes to employees spending lunch at their desk.

“In many workplaces, being seen to be sitting at your desk has become an important indicator of your commitment to your job,” he says.

“When managers are evaluating contribution by hours at your desk rather than work generated, being seen to be working through lunch can be important… If you work in an organisation where people often work through lunch, no one wants to be the first to admit they need a break.”

It’s a problem for employers, he says, because hours spent at a desk are an unreliable indicator of productivity.

“It’s very easy for managers to assume that people working through lunch… is good for their business.

“But it’s quite clear that people working in that way are not at their most productive. They’re not at their most creative. They’re not at their most communicative. And in the long run, the best staff will leave. It’s a very short-term indicator of a productive workplace, to confuse not taking lunch with everything going well.”

If employers do have people who regularly work through lunch, Dennis says the first step is to talk to them about it.

“Ask them why it is that they’re not taking lunch breaks.

“At a more concrete level, you could organise a lunch once a week in the office, to make it really clear that it’s not just okay, but it’s actually part of the workplace culture for people to sit down and have a break.

“And finally, employers can talk about work hours in their regular appraisals of staff. They can initiate these conversations, because it can be very hard for individual employees to start a conversation about these issues when it seems that everyone else seems happy with it.”

Most of the workers surveyed said taking a break makes them more productive, one in three said lunch breaks make their day more enjoyable, while one in four said a lunch break was useful in controlling stress.

The study was conducted as part of the campaign for Go Home on Time Day, which aims to recognise all the unpaid work employees put into the businesses that employ them.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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