One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that people’s ability to be happy and productive at work depends heavily on how they manage their break times- particularly, on whether they take actual breaks, or just pseudo-breaks where they actually still work. This knowledge can be used in two ways: to structure the job you have to maximize your enjoyment and output, and as a simple way to evaluate the culture, work environment, and work-life balance at a company you’re thinking of working for.
I’ve held several jobs over the years, including a couple of office jobs, one work from home job, and a couple of self-employment stints. At my first job, I always took a full lunch break, and after that I tended to switch back and forth between eating at my desk and taking a lunch break with each job. I even had one job where taking a lunch break, while not strictly forbidden, was so frowned upon that one time when I did it, I was accused of using my lunch break to interview for another job.
You can guess how that made me feel- like my office was a prison, and my lunch was just some hog feed to keep me going while I worked. Food lost its attraction for me, and I couldn’t wait to go home every day. But when I moved on from that job and started taking lunch breaks again? Suddenly, my life, my meals and my work all brought me joy again.
Now, I’ve implemented a policy of always taking a full one-hour lunch break, and I’m perfectly willing to take longer than that if I need the time to finish my meal, don’t have much work to do, or simply feel like taking longer. Before I explain how best to employ this rule, here are five reasons why you should just say no to eating lunch at your desk.
You won’t be productive while eating
Your food will distract you, plain and simple. Ideally you like to work for periods of 10-30 minutes, uninterrupted, with short breaks in between. While eating at your desk, you’ll work for periods of one or two minutes, take a bite or two, work another minute, take a bit, and so on. Because of the mental switching costs of alternating between two tasks like that, you’ll barely get any work done while eating.
You won’t enjoy your meal
In addition to doing a bad job of, well, doing your job, you’ll also end up doing a bad job of eating, to the extent that that’s even possible. Instead of sitting down to a nice meal and enjoying the atmosphere, you’ll be glued to your TPS reports. Instead of savoring every bite, you’ll barely notice the flavor while you treat your food as a distraction, rather than the life-giving nourishment and tasty luxury that it is.
You won’t be productive after eating
Here’s where bosses really get it wrong when they “encourage” employees to eat at their desks. I think a lot of people realize that it’s hard to be productive while eating, but what few realize is that once you finish your meal, shifting back into productive mode is a slow and difficult process- you’ll remain in an unproductive mental state for hours, maybe even until the end of the day, and you’ll have to stay at the office longer to make up for it.
In fact, study after study has shown that productivity goes down as work hours go up, as The Economist illustrates in this article. I’m convinced that this works two ways- low productivity forces workers to work longer to get their jobs done, and higher work hours lead to fatigue and lost sleep, which lowers productivity. Also, higher daily work hours are also correlated with low productivity, and a good break “resets the clock” somewhat,
You’ll miss valuable social opportunities
In talking to people who love their jobs, one thing I notice is that almost every one of them (barring those who work from home) eats lunch with their coworkers. My father has told me on several occasions that introducing an employee cafeteria with subsidized food was one of the smartest things Hewlett-Packard ever did because it got employees eating together instead of dispersing to a variety of eateries around town every day. This made the employees happier, more productive and more loyal, and led them to share good ideas with people they wouldn’t normally talk to.
Additionally, because skipping the lunch break kills your productivity and forces you to work later, coworkers at companies where everyone eats at their desks tend not to do anything together outside of work. This part is just my observation, but all of the friends I have who regularly go to bars, concerts and sporting events with their coworkers seem to take long lunch breaks, and work at places where that is the norm.
In addition to being enjoyable, having lunch with coworkers can help you get ahead in your career by providing valuable intra-office networking opportunities. Derek Halpern of Social Triggers, in his interview with Ramit Sethi for Ramit’s Brain Trust, offers up the best example of this strategy that I’ve ever heard: when he was working at a corporate job, he had lunch with everyone in the entire company, starting with his immediate coworkers, moving on to other low-level workers, and moving up to the managers and then executives over the course of a year or two. When he got to the CEO, the guy could hardly refuse his invitation- after all, Derek had gone out to lunch with everyone else at the company by that point!
You’ll get stressed out and sick
Long, uninterrupted work hours have a way of stressing people out. Even work that would be enjoyable for six hours a day, or two four-hour blocks, becomes a source of stress and misery when you’re doing it for eight or more hour without pause. This stress weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infection. The stress, anxiety, and possibly just sheer busyness keep you from getting enough sleep, further sickening you and, you guessed it, killing your productivity. The CDC has a great study on the health and safety risks that come from long work hours, which you can read here.
You’ll resent your job
The net effect of all this: you’ll come to hate your job. Your work-life balance will suffer, you won’t make as many friends at work as you’d like, you’ll feel mentally and physically fatigued, and you’ll get sick way too often. Before long, you’ll respond one of two ways: if you’re the complacent type, you’ll rationalize that this is just the price of getting ahead in the corporate world, developing a grim fatalism and maybe even a perverse pride in your suffering. If you’re the type of person who takes decisive action to solve your problems, you’ll start looking for a new job.
By the way, to any managers reading this, I want to make that last part abundantly clear: if you make your employees eat lunch at work, you’ll lose a lot of your best employees. Hopefully you care about their well-being, but if not, maybe you can at least care about this.
How you can use this
First off, don’t eat lunch at your desk. Duh. If possible, don’t even eat lunch within sight of where you work. And don’t lawyer your way out of this by taking your laptop to lunch with you, or answering work emails on your phone at lunch; take a real frickin’ break people!
Second, you may have noticed that I repeatedly conflate working through lunch with long work hours. That’s because, by and large, the two always occur together. You can use this during your job search to get valuable insight into a company’s work environment by simply asking people at the company what they typically do for lunch. If they say they eat at their desks, move on. If they say they always grab a quick meal at the closest possible spot, that’s alright. If they talk about the great food to be found at a variety of places nearby, and don’t suggest that they feel the need to rush through lunch, you’re found a fun company to work for.
Want to learn more ways to increase your productivity, enjoy your work, and make sure you get a job you’ll enjoy at a company you’ll be happy to work for? Sign up for my mailing list below, read my free ebook, and watch your inbox for more free career advice.