Working through lunch. We’ve all done it.
Chances are, there is an employee at your company (maybe it’s you), that is busy working through a break right now, take out sandwich in hand, grabbing bites between emails and phone calls.
Dedicated, hardworking employee? Sure. Productive employee? Maybe not.
While working through lunch may seem like the fastest way to get more done, studies show that the practice could actually be slowing us down.
In fact, a recent study by Tork, a global leader in napkin production, revealed that 90 percent of employees felt more refreshed and productive after taking a short break.
For Tork, headquartered in Philadelphia, understanding lunch breaks is important business. The company makes it a mission to study the eating habits of the American worker and in recent years, has seen the lunch break become less of a standard practice.
“We found dramatic changes in lunch habits at work,” said Raquel Carbonari, Tork brand activation manager. “People are working through lunch and we questioned, ‘Why?’ ”
To learn more, Tork surveyed 1,600 employees throughout the United States and Canada. They found that 38 percent did not feel encouraged to take a break and 20 percent feared their bosses would think they are not hard working if they did.
And this was not just their perception. The survey found some truth to these employees’ beliefs. For example, 22 percent of bosses surveyed did in fact consider the employees who worked through lunch to be more hardworking than those who did not.
And in Pennsylvania there are no labor laws that require employers to provide employees with a meal break, no matter how long their shift.
Law or no law, Tork found that encouraging employees to take time off to eat makes good business sense. Among the workers surveyed, those who took a lunch hour every day scored higher on a wide range of engagement metrics, including job satisfaction, and were more likely to continue working at the same company and recommend their employer to others.
“In this 24/7-work culture,” said Carbonari, “we need a break to recharge. We found employees who do take a break feel happier and more engaged at work.”
The reality is that 62 percent of Millennials and 46 percent of Baby Boomers surveyed would take a longer and more regular lunch break if possible, according to Tork. And 16 percent of Millennials would take a pay cut in exchange for a regular break during the workday.
Here in the Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley Business did our own anecdotal research and found support for the lunch hour to be mostly unanimous. The workers we talked to said breaks allow them to recharge and be more focused in their work.
“I love lunch breaks,” said Lynn Alexander, who works for a statewide disability advocacy organization, “I used to see it as a luxury. I thought that a hard worker will miss meals and not complain. Now I look back and think that was just capitalism talking. We all have the right to eat, stretch, check on our kids and go to the bathroom. We are human.”
Amy Worden, a single mom and restaurant worker in Palmer Township, said she longs for lunch breaks.
“I am jealous of people who can get a lunch break,” she said. “Since starting my first job at 16 as a server until today at age 40, I have never gotten a break to eat. I’ve snuck food in the bathroom and had to hide food. When I did have a job where I was given breaks and food, I was more alert, I was happier. My brain worked better. If you are lucky enough to get a break, enjoy it.”
Restaurant workers in particular are short on breaks. Of the several restaurant servers we spoke with, none received time off to eat, not even during an 8-hour shift. Instead, they talked about grabbing a quick bite whenever they could. If they didn’t, they said, their energy levels would plummet, leaving them prone to mistakes.
That same thing can happen to office workers, too.
Bill Rich lives in the Easton area, and is a 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry.
“It’s pretty demanding,” he said, “with short timelines that have a lot of money riding on them, so I’ve worked through lunch more times than I can count. Eventually I realized that I was burning out. I made simple, even dumb mistakes, lost patience with coworkers, and found that rather than saving me time, skipping lunch cost me more effort in fixing my mistakes.”
Burn-out like that can happen at any job, but taking a break from work can alleviate the risk. It’s not just the lunch that is important, but the break.
And if you can incorporate a bit of exercise into that break, all the better.
Many Lehigh Valley workers do just that. Drive through corporate campuses in the area at lunchtime and you will see groups of workers briskly walking the paths, catching up on company gossip, and enjoying the weather.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine in Nashville, these employees are doing the right thing for themselves and their employer. The College reports that time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines improve on days when employees take a break to exercise.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine showed similar benefits. The study found that adding just 2.5 hours of exercise per week into the workday led to significantly fewer employee absences and marked increases in self-reported productivity.
Based on evidence like this, along with his own experience, Bill Rich, the pharmaceutical worker who often worked through lunch in the past, has become a strict convert to the mid-day break.
“Now I force myself to take a break for lunch no matter what,” he said. “I try to step outside and get some sunshine and contact with the outside world. Just stepping away gives my brain a break. I handle the rest of the day better.”