Posted: Tue 17th Sep 2019
I don't know what I dislike more, people munching their lunches at their desks or the phrase that's increasingly used to describe it: eating al desko. Urgh.
Not because it sounds like something David Brent would say while curling his fingers like speech marks. but because it's a horrible euphemism, the mushing together of al fresco, with all its connotations of sophistication and health, and the hopelessly mundane: desk.
It makes slurping a cuppa soup or eating a curled-up sarnie while fingering a crumb covered keyboard sound desirable. It's anything but. It's unhygienic and unhealthy. Worse still, if your staff are doing it regularly, it could be sapping your business's productivity.
Longer lunches can be good for business
Everyone who runs a business should be encouraging their staff to take a proper lunch break. Under UK law, anyone working a six-hour shift is entitled to 20 minutes' rest away from their work station at the middle of the day.
That's not enough. Midday Pret queues can be more than 20 minutes long, so workers who have to squeeze anything more than scoffing a sandwich into their statutory lunchbreak are likely to return to work more stressed than refreshed.
Lunch lasts for an average of just 22 minutes in the UK, according to a 2018 survey by Sodexo and Ukactive, down from 33 minutes in 2012. A 2019 study found only 24% of workers take a lunch hour and a third don't leave their desks at all at lunch [Ginger Comms].
"Promoting the importance of wellbeing can include small things like not letting people have lunch at their desk", says Stuart Groves, co-founder of the events company Shout About. "Doing so not only promotes a clean desk policy, it forces people to take a break."
Analysis by Pricenomics found we tend to be most productive in the morning, with productivity tending to peak at 11am before tailing off after lunch and plummeting after 4pm. If more of us were taking a break, would that post lunch dip be less steep?
Lunch and the national productivity crisis
There's plenty of evidence to suggest this would be the case. "It's ingrained in us from school age that working harder and longer increases the likelihood of success," says Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant platform Time Etc.
"The message that working longer increases chances of success couldn't be more wrong. In fact, it's downright damaging to our health and business productivity. Your employees know when they're most and least productive. Creating a culture of trust - where your staff can shape their schedules to suit their productivity bursts - is one way to lift output."
A look at our national productivity relative to our neighbours, and the modern aversion to taking a proper lunch, supports the idea that working longer hours is detrimental to economic productivity.
The world's most productive country is Luxembourg, where the average working week lasts for just 29 hours [Collectivehub]. The UK works more hours a week than any other European country (more than 42) and is one of the least productive. Britain was the only advanced economy to see productivity growth slow in 2018.
This isn't all down to lunch, of course, but it is linked. France is the 14th most productive country in the world (Britain doesn't feature in the top 15). 43% of French workers take at least 45 minutes off for lunch every day, the highest rate in Europe [thelocal.fr]. Shops and schools often close for two hours from 2pm for lunch.
The case for the 90-minute lunch break
In early 2019, a group of MPs called for UK school children to be given the legal right to 75 minutes' break a day, following the gradual erosion of the duration of break times over a number of years. I'd argue that adults need more than an hour of downtime a day too.
A 2013 study in the academic journal Organizational Dynamics found that taking time off during the working day not only makes people more productive, it makes people feel less stressed, less likely to burn out and more likely to sleep better.
The report also suggested lunch needn't just be for eating. Physical activity during the day can result in 'positive mood and vigour', which in turn boosts productivity. Who can get to the gym, change, work out, shower, eat and get back to their desk in less than 90 minutes?
Matthew Reed is co-founder and managing director of Equipsme. Surprisingly simple health insurance for business.
Get more tips for helping employees remain healthy and stress-free in the Business Health Hub