If eating at your desk is the norm, think again. Photo: iStock
Do you stop for lunch? When I tell people one of the best things they can do to improve their productivity and concentration in the afternoon is take a quick lunch break, I invariably hear “I'm too busy”, “got too much work to do”, and “if I take a break it means I'm going to be here even longer”.
Research conducted by ING Direct in July found, unsurprisingly, that Australians are skipping lunch, eating at their desks and catching up on personal admin in ever-increasing numbers. The reason most people cite for not taking time out for lunch is that the demands of work are increasingly eating into their day. Lunch is no longer used as a break from work to recharge the batteries and give the brain a rest before tacking the afternoon shift.
The ING Direct research found:
- The typical Aussie lunch break is between 15-30 minutes
- 37 per cent of us spend lunchtime catching up on phone calls; 31 per cent do personal admin, 30 per cent go shopping and 24 per cent catch up on social media
- 31 per cent of us eat lunch in a communal area at/near work
- 7 per cent use their lunch break to go to the gym
- Almost one in three (28 per cent) of people habitually eat at their desk; 33 per cent are skipping lunch entirely once or more a week; and 10 per cent work through their lunch break.
Three scientific reasons you need a break
Taking a quick break from your desk, even if it is only for 15 to 20 minutes, is a proven way to increase productivity and decision making throughout the afternoon. Human beings do not work in a linear fashion like machines, and taking regular breaks is imperative to help sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day.
1. Restore psychological resources
A 2012 study in the Academy of Management Review highlighted that during the working day we need a lot of self-control over thoughts, emotions, urges and behaviours. Every time we need to self-regulate, our psychological resources are being used. Besides regular vacations and adequate sleep, taking a lunch break during the day is an opportunity for resource recovery. The research showed it helped people concentrate and process information better in the afternoon.
2. Improve physical health
A 2010 study in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology showed activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to physical and mental stress. The HPA is responsible for the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, and elevated levels of cortisol levels over time have been related to a number of diseases and illnesses.
The researchers found taking a lunch break and including progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing had a positive impact on reducing blood pressure, improving quality of sleep, reducing asthma and reduction in rheumatic complaints.
3. Decrease fatigue
A 2009 study, Research in Occupational Stress and Wellbeing, found breaks during the day (including lunch) are effective in fighting fatigue and increasing productivity. To optimise these outcomes, employees should engage in enjoyable and restful activities.
Just do it
While I could give you loads more research on the benefits of taking a lunch break, the real proof in this experiment is trying it for yourself. Today (or tomorrow), lock in a lunch break (sticking to the tips below) and assess how you feel during the afternoon shift. Are you more alert? Are you more productive? Do you feel more focused after a lunch break?
One of the biggest productivity myths is that productivity equals hours worked. It's is much more about what we actually accomplish during the hours that we are working. Hunching over your desk all day and locking your body and brain in artificial light and stale air is a great way to turn your output onto 'go slow' mode for the afternoon. Taking a lunch break is a proven way to increase productivity and decision making throughout the afternoon.
Five tips to take back your lunch
1. Short and sharp
A 15 to 20 minute break is all you need away from the desk and preferably get outside to get a quick dose of sunshine and some fresh air. And start with just one or two lunch breaks a week and notice how much more productive you feel that afternoon.
2. Go green
A recent study found that your brain gets more of break by taking a walk in a green environment, like a park, than if you took a stroll in an urban environment filled with concrete. In the study, those who took a walk in a park performed better at cognitive tasks than their urban peers.
3. Lock it in the diary
I know this sounds ridiculously simple but the reality is if you don't put the time for a lunch break in your diary, your time will definitely get hijacked by other people, other meetings and other tasks outside of your control
4. Digital detox
Another great tip is to try and stay off your iPhone, iPad, iThingumy for the duration of the lunch break to give your iBrain a proper break and time to recharge.
5. Lunch for all
A number of proactive companies are now encouraging their employees to take breaks (rather than working them like machines) and making it part of their culture. Grab a colleague or your entire team and get outside for a quick bite. Not only will it help productivity, it's also a great way to get to know your colleagues better.
Over to you. What are your tips to take back your lunch?