“I usually eat in front of my monitor because everyone else does and I would feel like a slacker going out to eat for a half an hour or an hour to recharge. I do, however, think workplaces should encourage their staff to take regular breaks where they leave the desk, go to a lunch room or out of the office completely to get their mind off work and have a rest.”
This was the recent lament of a beleaguered Australian employee who posted anonymously on lifehacker.com.au in a discussion about lunch breaks. While there has been some research on the long-term impact of holidays, after-work activities and weekend breaks on employees’ ability to revive energy levels and recuperate from work, little attention has been paid to how people spend their breaks during work time.
John Trougakos, from the Department of Management at the University of Toronto, has sought to remedy this by being one of the first academics to focus on the lunch break as an opportunity for employee recovery. “I was interested in examining the effect of lunch-break activities and how what someone does (and how much control they have over their choices) can counteract the negative impact of work and how fatigued they are at the end of the workday,” says Trougakos.
Let’s not forget that lunch breaks are a relatively recent entitlement of the modern work environment. The growth of unionisation and the introduction of health and safety laws have ensured that periods of rest are a legal requirement in most employees’ working days. However, the way that people use that down time differs considerably. Reports indicate that, increasingly, they are not taking advantage of lunch breaks to recuperate at all.
In the US, a survey this year by human resources consultants Right Management reported that only one-third of employees took a lunch break, with 65% saying they eat at their desks. In the UK, research by healthcare group Bupa in 2011 found just three in 10 employees were taking a lunch hour. More than one-third said they experienced pressure from managers to work through their lunch breaks, and 50% said their workload prevented them from taking a break.
Whether or not employees typically take a break to eat lunch or take time out from the workplace in the middle of the day depends to some extent on the industry they work in and, indeed, how high up they are in the corporate food chain. Recently, Hong Kong stock exchange traders were furious when their lunch hours were cut from two hours to 60 minutes. But in the UK, research from Business Environment surveyed 3000 office workers and found that only 38% of banking and insurance sector workers took a leisurely hour for lunch, and 35% of catering workers never took a lunch break.
Buddy up or break away?
“Some days, I require a break. I take it. Some days, it’s lunch in the lunchroom or at my desk reading a magazine. Some days it’s a walk to a nearby deli or cafe. Sometimes it’s half an hour long, sometimes it’s 90 minutes if we go to a busy restaurant.” (lifehacker.com.au)
As part of his research on the impact of lunch breaks, Trougakos surveyed a group of administrative workers, aged on average between 39 and 52. They were asked how they spent their lunch breaks during a 10-day period, what choices they had, and about their subsequent levels of fatigue. Co-workers were asked to rate the employees’ job fatigue at the end of the day. Not surprisingly, people who relaxed, sat quietly or even slept during their breaks benefited by feeling less tired than those who did some work-related activity during their lunch periods. But the research also showed that socialising was not as restful as might be expected.