Ah, the age old question about the lunch hour: To work, or not to work. While scarfing down a sandwich in front of your computer screen might seem like the logical choice on busy days at work, have you ever stopped to ask yourself: Is this the best use of my time?
It might not be. In fact, we think it’s time to reverse the narrative that taking a real lunch break is a waste of precious time. The reason: It’s actually an important part of the workday. You should work during lunch, but this work isn’t the “sitting in a meeting room discussing things with your mouth full” type of work. Instead, you should look at it as a chance to mentally recharge and to get to know your co-workers better. Lunch hour might even be the secret to generally feeling more positive and engaged at work. Let’s explore that.
The reality of working during lunch
First, let’s get real. The reality is: The modern workplace is demanding. So much so that many days, employees feel like they should eat at their desks and just keep working through the lunch hour. This happens more than you might think. Data shows only one in five office workers take an actual lunch break away from their desk according to a survey from Right Management. And there’s more from another survey:
- Nearly 20% of American workers worry their superiors won’t think they are working hard if they take regular lunch breaks, while 13% have fears their co-workers will judge them.
- 38% of employees don’t feel they’re encouraged to take a lunch break.
- 22% of American leaders say employees who take a regular lunch break are viewed as less hardworking.
And this is still true right now. A recent Twitter poll from August 2019 showed that of more than 200 people who work in an office setting, 72% work through their lunch hours on a regular basis. When asked why they did that, the responses were varied. One person said, “So I can get more done and end the workday earlier.” Another person said, “There’s not enough time to get work done if I take a lunch for a full hour.” But other respondents expressed regret over missing out on the opportunity to take lunch and visit with co-workers. Holly Landis said, “I grew up in Europe and always took lunch with coworkers and supervisors. When I moved to the US five years ago, I’ve maybe taken a break 30% of my working days. I know I need to work on it, as it’s so much better for my mental health when I do.”
Why a lunch break is not a waste of time
So what does this data and insight tell us? Well, for one thing: Working through lunch sometimes feels like a necessity–but the reality of missing out on that mid-day break can have some serious implications. When you don’t work through lunch, you get two-fold benefits: It’s good for your mental health and it helps you become a more involved/engaged part of your team.
Mental health benefits
Stepping away from your desk to eat is a chance for you to recharge your mental batteries and reset for the second half of the day. This is good news, as data shows that breaking from work-related tasks allows your brain to function better and to concentrate more fully. In fact, studies show that a 15 to 20-minute break is a proven way to sustain concentration and energy throughout the day.
But that’s not all. There are also some team-oriented perks, too. In short: Taking a lunch break is an easy way to engage with and get to know your co-workers better. It’s a low-risk, no pressure environment for conversations to take place and helps create a sense of intimacy that’s often lacking in workplaces. This opens the door for troubleshooting conversations, empathy, and sharing with people from different departments that you might not normally have the chance to regularly interact with during the workday. It’s also an opportunity to engage the social part of your brain that craves that emotional, human connection throughout the day and can be a place for organic connection-building that leads to new opportunities and friendships (not to mention it’s great for building trust and rapport.)
What to do when you feel like you should work through lunch
So what should you do when you feel like you legitimately don’t have time to take a lunch break? Here are some ideas for getting past that hurdle.
Restructure or re-prioritize your workload.
If you have so much to do that you can’t take lunch, something has to change. Find ways to boost productivity or offload less important/time-sucking tasks so that you have at least 30 minutes for lunch each day. That might mean instituting a closed-door work sprint in the morning or skipping a webinar you don’t really need to attend. Whatever it takes, find ways to maximize your hours of meaningful work.
Ask yourself: What do I gain from NOT taking lunch?
Are the few minutes you spend working between hasty bites of sandwich really all that productive when you think about it? Or is it just a mental hangup/public perception issue? You might actually get more done if you give yourself permission to take a short break outside of your workspace.
Be deliberate and ask someone to join you.
If you feel like you can’t keep yourself accountable to taking a real lunch hour, build it into your schedule by pairing it with a deliberate action–like asking a co-worker to join you at a certain time. Because that other person will be waiting for you, you’ll be more apt to hold up your end of the deal and to take a real break with time specifically set aside for connection-building. If you’re really strategic about it–keep a running list of people you’ve wanted to chat with at work but haven’t had a chance to and work through it by scheduling out lunch dates.
Join a group.
Is there a group of your co-workers that regularly meets up for lunch together? It might feel intimidating to ask to join in, but doing so is the most direct way to get a foot in the door and to establish new friendships. A simple ask to a group member is usually all it takes. You might say: “Would you mind if I joined you guys for lunch today? I’ve not been good about taking a real lunch lately, but I’m trying to be better about it.”
Should you work during lunch: The final verdict
The short answer to this burning question is clear: The only work you should be doing during lunch is connecting with your team members away from your desk. Use your lunch break as a time to reset your brain and to build deeper relationships with your work family. Give yourself at least 30 minutes a day and build it into your schedule and be rigid in your boundaries about it. If you approach it as an opportunity to learn more about the people you work with, what they care about, are struggling with, and could use help with, you’ll become a better team member–and a better human being.