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Too swamped at work for a lunch break? You could be risking your health — and your company's bottom line

Key Points
  • Most American workers don't feel comfortable stepping away from their desks to take a lunch break — and that's affecting mental well-being and productivity.
  • Yet in a recent study by Tork, nearly 90% of the American workers surveyed felt that lunch breaks helped them feel refreshed and ready to get back to work.
Paul Bradbury | Getty Images

American workers don't feel comfortable stepping away from their desks to take a lunch break — and that's leading to burnout.

According to a newly released survey from Tork, a brand from the global health and hygiene company Essity, employees who want to be on top of their game need to take time out of their workday to decompress.

The "Take Back the Lunch Break" survey, which was conducted among 1,600 North American employees across the U.S. and Canada, reveals that "North American workers value their lunch breaks and feel more engaged and productive when they make the time to take a lunch break every day. The workplace norm around lunch breaks needs to be shifted from something that you are only able to do when you have the time to something that you would be remiss to skip."

The study also found that employees who took a lunch break every day were more likely to say, "I am as effective and efficient as I would like to be" and "I am satisfied with my current job" than those who don't. They were also more likely to say, "I feel valued as an employee" and "I have a strong desire to be an active member in my company."

By contrast, those who don't take a lunch break were more likely to say, "I am willing to work late or on weekends." That may indicate that once employees surrender their lunch breaks, it leads to a mindset in which all of their free time is now up for grabs.

These findings stand in marked contrast to the way many workers currently approach lunch during the business day. Most employees habitually put it off until the last possible minute, then eat at their desks in a harried and unpleasant fashion, lest the boss sees us neglecting our spreadsheets for a moment.

So how did we get to this point?

"This phenomenon actually started in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009, when employers cut to the bone, leaving little time for those that remained to take a leisurely lunch," said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm. "Instead, lunch moved to a grab-and-go event."

A poor effect on morale

While treating lunch like an afterthought may have helped employers economize, it had a poor effect on morale. Miami attorney Miguel A. Suro said that while it might increase productivity in the short run, a workplace culture of hurried lunches is a recipe for an oppressive atmosphere that will eventually drive workers away.

"If you're swamped once in a while, fine," he said. "But I believe that making a habit of eating alone at your desk speeds up burnout, loneliness and a feeling of being isolated. Sometimes it's the start of the 'slow fade,' when we gradually withdraw, detach from a job and ultimately leave."

Life and business coach Julie Melillo fully supports the lunch break, saying a respite from the desk is essential to mind and body. Additionally, she cited a negative ripple effect on morale when employees are glued to their desks all day.

If you're swamped once in a while, fine. But I believe that making a habit of eating alone at your desk speeds up burnout, loneliness and a feeling of being isolated. Sometimes it's the start of the 'slow fade,' when we gradually withdraw, detach from a job and ultimately leave.
Miguel A. Suro
Miami attorney

"You wouldn't expect to go to the gym and lift weights constantly," she said. "You lift, and then you rest. This is how you grow stronger and also how you become productive and efficient."

To her point, a lunch break doesn't always mean you need to spend the time eating. A lunch break could also be used for catching up on errands or socializing with co-workers. 

According to a 2018 survey by the professional staffing company OfficeTeam, 56% of office workers' lunch breaks last 30 minutes or less, but don't assume that all they're doing during that time is eating. When asked what workers do aside for eating on their lunch breaks, 52% said that they could be found surfing the web or checking in with social media.

Finally, she added that if you're running a business and can't afford to let your workers leave their posts in the middle of the day, then the problem isn't your workers. The problem is you.

"If there's no time for an employee to take a lunch break, there's something seriously wrong with the structure of the business," she said. "Are you running a sweatshop?"

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Not everyone takes such a dim view of losing the lunchbreak. Alex Beene, a coordinator at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said that long, leisurely lunchtimes not only stop workflow but cause some workers to have a hard time getting back up to speed. Furthermore, he said that younger workers who have grown up with a mobile device in one hand wouldn't know what to do with a full hour away from their computers, anyway.

"Technology has become so integrated into their lives that remaining on their computers or typing on their phones while eating a quick bite at their desks feels just as natural as it would be in a nonworking environment," he said. "I'm unsure if the standard lunch break were brought back for that group whether they would really want it or not, as it takes them out of the zone they and their employer have established."

Of course, there is no law requiring companies to provide their employees with paid lunch breaks, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, an established meal period typically lasting at least 30 minutes is not considered work time and can therefore be unpaid.

It remains to be seen if the lunch break is due to make a triumphant return to the workplace, but the findings of the Tork survey are worth considering. Nearly 90% of North American workers surveyed felt that lunch breaks helped them feel refreshed and ready to get back to work, which is not a small thing for employers hoping to retain a happy staff. Besides, Miami attorney Miguel A. Suro said that seeing to your employees' basic needs is simply the right thing to do.

"We need sunlight, fresh air and social interaction," he said. "We're not vampires."

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at the @ Work: People + Machines Summit in San Francisco on Nov. 4. Leaders from Dropbox, Sas, McKinsey and more will teach us how to balance the needs of today with the possibilities of tomorrow, and the winning strategies to compete.