Are you eating at your desk today? Odds are you answered yes.
Over the last decade, fueled by salary cuts and job insecurity, lunch hour has evolved. It’s shorter, more purposeful and more often spent in the office. It’s the source of lawsuits, a point of contention among generations, and a contributor to the obesity epidemic.
The shift in the midday ritual has some businesses repurposing their lunchrooms and others reshaping their policies. It has even launched a national movement called Take Back Your Lunch Hour.
For some, the move toward brown-bagging began with an effort to cut costs and show commitment. But even as the economy rebounds and summer approaches, habits aren’t changing.
For most managers, eating at your desk has become the new status symbol of efficiency.
“It shows you’re trying to be more productive, more committed,” says Diana Metcalf, major gifts officer with Junior Achievement of South Florida. “With all the balls we are juggling, it’s just easier to eat at your desk.”
Catherine Haga, president of Junior Achievement of Greater Miami, says she used to go out to lunch regularly. Not anymore.
“With so many time demands, I’d rather take 20 minutes to pound out a memo or read emails and eat at the same time.” Haga says she’s even more likely to eat at her desk in summer. “To take a vacation, I’m going to have to work twice as hard before and after to do what needs to be done.”
That’s not what Emily Pines and Inna Kurbatsky want to hear. They are gearing up to gain new momentum for Take Back Your Lunch, a campaign launched last June by The Energy Project. It encourages workers to schedule lunch outside the office at least one day a week during summer. They have proposed Wednesdays. Their next move is to target companies.
“It’s not healthy to sit at your desk from the time you get into the office to the time you leave. It can lead to burnout and attrition,” Kurbatsky says.
Their advice: “We want you to do anything that helps you relax or recharge — walk, take a yoga class, have a picnic lunch in the park,” Pines says. “The main thing is that you walk away from your desk, get out of the office environment and disengage from work.”
Rebecca Portnoy is researching the value of social interaction at lunch. Portnoy, assistant professor of management at the Washington State University College of Business, is looking at what happens when workers share mealtime with co-workers. In a university setting, she studied custodians who share their meal break on a regular basis, and faculty, who eat at their desks.
“White-collar workers, such as the faculty, recognize the positive of lunch away from their desks but view it as something that disrupts their day,” Portnoy says. The custodians, she says, developed a sense of family, trust and a willingness to help each other out, particularly when work-life conflicts arise.
Among hourly workers, lunch is mandated in most states. Yet with the push for productivity, employers are being slapped with lawsuits costing them millions of dollars by workers who say they are being compelled to work through meal breaks. Concerned, some companies now bar employees from working through meal breaks or eating at their desks.