Lunch Breaks: Do They Do a Body Good?

Do you remember the days of the three-martini lunch (or as Jimmy Carter put it, the "the $50 martini lunch")? Or a time when a lunch hour could actually take -- an hour? Or even the standard half an hour?

Perhaps not. In a society that is increasingly work-obsessed and overly "connected," the lunch break, for many, is not a "break" at all, but a sandwich or salad hastily consumed at our desks as we continue on with our workday. Last year, a survey by human resources consulting firm Right Management found that "one-third of employees have lunch at their desk each day" and "another one-third takes no lunch, or only occasionally."

"Lunch patterns allow us to infer a few things about the North American workplace…and one thing that we already know is that the pressure for productivity and performance can be relentless," said Michael Haid, senior VP of talent management at Right Management, in a release on the study.

Many Workers Take No Break

Another recent study by CareerBuilder found that "nearly one-third (32 percent) report they take less than a half hour for lunch, while 5 percent take less than 15 minutes. One-in-ten never take a lunch break and 16 percent report they work right through their lunch hour."

The laws around lunch breaks vary by state, often with different standards set for various situations. On April 12, the California Supreme Court ruled that, while its state law requires employees get a 30-minute meal break, employers are not obligated to ensure that they actually take these breaks. That is to say, if an employee prefers to stay glued to his or her laptop while they eat their tuna sandwich, no one is going to stop them.

But what about the health benefits, both physical and psychological, that might come along with taking your head out of the work and actually enjoying your meal? Will taking a real lunch break make you more productive at work?

The Benefits of the Break

Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a workplace psychologist and career coach at VocationVillage.com, says that there is never a downside to taking a real lunch break. "In my work with hundreds of clients who have experimented with different practices to increase their work day energy and job satisfaction," she says, "I have never had a client who started taking real lunch breaks, the kind where you actually leave your desk for an hour, conclude that doing so is a waste of time." Furthermore, she says,"I am completely opposed to employees multitasking lunch while working at a computer or doing any other work-related task."

She recognizes the culture of lunch-break denial, saying that employees "think their boss won't like it, their colleagues will think they are a slacker, there is too much work to do, etc. But if people can get past their resistance and start taking lunch hours away from their desk, I am confident they will find the reward to be greater productivity, stamina and enjoyment in their job."

The one caveat, she adds, "is that, when you get away from work, you have to detach psychologically as well as physically. If you are so stressed out that you are worried about work the entire time you are taking a lunch break, there won't be any benefit."

Coffee Talk: Are Microbreaks Worthwhile?

In a hit to conventional wisdom, a recent study by Portland State University assistant professor Charlotte Fritz (published in the Harvard Business Review) found that"microbreaks" -- e.g., the 10-minute coffee break -- that weren't work-related actually do not lead to increased energy or productivity throughout the day. In an HBR IdeaCast interview on the study, Fritz says that "non-work-related microbreaks were not related to feeling energized. Work-related tasks, and specifically tasks that were associated either with learning something new, realizing the meaningful pieces about your work, or connecting positively with others at work, were the ones that seemed to be related to feeling energized at work."

Furthermore, she stated that, during a lunch break, detaching from work-related activities "might not be the best thing to do, because you're still in the office environment, and it might not be realistic to be mentally detaching right then and there." She did, however, say that, during a lunch break, she would "still encourage people to go for a walk, go outside, and get some sun in." And mentally disengaging from the workplace, she continued, is definitely beneficial when at home, when "it might be good to put your BlackBerry down for awhile and maybe just pick it up the next morning."

Different Views

Two recent Slate articles took very different views on the topic, with one writer saying Americans should take French-style, leisurely lunches and the other stating she'd rather work through her lunch for the benefit of a shorter day and more time spent with family. (How many of us actually get to work shorter days simply because we eat our sandwiches at our desks is not explored.)

What do you think? Do you take lunch at your desk, or do you take an actual break? Do you think taking a real break is beneficial, or would you rather be more productive as you eat?

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