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Lunchtime Legends: The Ins and Outs of Workday Breaks

September 04, 2012

​​"I usually eat in front of my monitor because everyone else does and I would feel like a slacker going out to eat for a half an hour or an hour to recharge. I do however think workplaces should encourage their staff to take regular breaks where they leave the desk, go to a lunch room or out of the office completely to get their mind off work and have a rest."

​​This was the recent lament of a beleaguered Australian employee who posted anonymously onlifehacker.com.au in a discussion about lunch breaks. While there has been some research on the long-term impact of vacations, after-work activities and weekend breaks on employees' ability to revive energy levels and recuperate from work, little attention has been paid to how people spend their breaks during work time.

John Trougakos, from the Department of Management at the University of Toronto, has sought to remedy this by being one of the first academics to focus on the lunch break as an opportunity for employee recovery. "I was interested in examining the effect of lunch-break activities and how what someone does (and how much control they have over their choices) can counteract the negative impact of work and how fatigued they are at the end of the workday," says Trougakos.

Let's not forget that lunch breaks are a relatively recent entitlement of the modern work environment. The growth of unionisation and the introduction of health and safety laws have ensured that periods of rest are a legal requirement in most employees' working days. However, the way that people use that down time differs considerably. Reports indicate that, increasingly, they are not taking advantage of lunch breaks to recuperate at all. In the US, a survey this year from human resources consultantsRight 

Management reported that only one-third of employees take a lunch break, with 65% saying they eat at their desks. In the UK, research by healthcare group Bupa in 2011 found just three in 10 employees were taking a lunch hour. More than one-third said they experienced pressure from managers to work through their lunch breaks, and 50% considered their workload prevented them from taking a break.

Whether or not employees typically take a break to eat lunch or take time out from the workplace in the middle of the day depends to some extent on the industry they work in and, indeed, how high up they are in the corporate food chain. Recently, Hong Kong stock exchange traders were furious when their lunch hours were cut from two hours to 60 minutes. But in the UK, research from Business Environment surveyed 3000 office workers and found that only 38% of banking and insurance sector workers took a leisurely hour for lunch, and 35% of catering workers never took a lunch break.

Buddy up or break away?

"Some days, I require a break. I take it. Some days, it's lunch in the lunchroom or at my desk reading a magazine. Some days it's a walk to a nearby deli or cafe. Sometimes it's half an hour long, sometimes it's 90 minutes if we go to a busy restaurant." (lifehacker.com.au)

As part of his research on the impact of lunch breaks, Trougakos surveyed a group of administrative workers, aged on average between 39 and 52. They were asked how they spent their lunch breaks during a 10-day period, what choices they had, and about their subsequent levels of fatigue. Co-workers were asked to rate the employees' job fatigue at the end of the day. Not surprisingly, people who relaxed, sat quietly or even slept during their breaks benefited by feeling less tired than those who did some work-related activity during their lunch periods. But the research also showed that socialising was not as restful as might be expected.

"It wasn't a totally relaxing activity for a lot of people," says Trougakos, who presented his findings at the Emotions at Work symposium at the Australian School of Business in May. "Being with colleagues may make you think about work. These may not all be people you want to socialise with. Behaviour is a little more formalised than if you were with friends at the weekend because you're still ‘on' and using up psychological and cognitive resources."

Trougakos expanded on this in his 2008 paper, Making the Break Count: An Episodic Examination of Recovery Activities, Emotional Experiences and Positive Affective Displays. Trougakos explored the draining effect on individuals of having to regulate emotions throughout a working day. "Each time a person engages in some sort of self-control, their psychological resource is depleted, making it increasingly difficult to regulate behaviour," he says.

"Sometimes I eat in front of the monitor ... sometimes I take a looong lunch. But I guess I'm lucky in that regard. Nobody is watching the clock ... only the output." (lifehacker.com.au)

One factor that has a crucial impact on levels of fatigue is the amount of autonomy and self-determination people have over their breaks. "If the boss insists that they work through their lunch break, that person is most likely going to be unhappy and that will add to feelings of exhaustion," Trougakos says. By contrast, people who choose to work through lunch, even though they aren't relaxing, report feeling less tired than those forced to work.

"That concept of having control is critical to the outcomes. If people choose to socialise at lunch with people they want to spend time with, they have more resources at the end of the day. But where they have less control over the decision to socialise, they report feeling a lot more tired," says Trougakos.

Running on empty

Although not part of his research, Trougakos confirms that some employees use lunch breaks to exercise or play a sport and are encouraged to do so by a growing number of companies that provide in-house facilities or financial incentives such as gym memberships.

At top law firm Clayton Utz, national OH&S adviser Laura Cropley says the company is involved in corporate sporting events, such as City2Surf and the BRW Triathlon in Sydney, which involve commitment to regular training and participation. Clayton Utz is also part of Virgin Active, a gym membership scheme, and offers yoga classes and meditation as part of the company's national health and wellbeing program.

"There's no denying that the long hours and highly stressful environment exist, but to help manage and mitigate that, senior partners encourage people to take lunch time out of the office," explains Cropley. "Individuals are put in charge of managing their own time, their own physical and mental health and there's flexibility for them to do that. It's not an environment where you need to keep to a number of fixed hours in the office."

With employee burnout a pressing issue for firms such as Clayton Utz, the risk of losing valued people ensures that caring for staff is a high priority. Anecdotally, staff members have reported feeling more positive and energised after lunchtime exercise, according to Cropley. "The focus more recently has been on mental health, and research has shown us that physical activity at lunchtime and before and after work helps to manage and improve mental health," she says.

Trougakos believes there is a need for more research into the impact of in-work breaks on employees' health and wellbeing: "Given the work demands that people are facing, the fear of losing your job, the pressure to achieve a work/family balance and the fact that people can now track you down 24/7, the importance of the longest and most common type of break within the workday needs greater understanding."​
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