• 20 August 2014

Why lunch breaks are essential for employers as well as employees

If you've been under pressure at work in recent years, you're not alone. It seems as if it's getting harder and harder just to get a brief respite from the daily grind. According to a 2013 BBC survey, 54% of employees polled said they regularly found themselves working through their lunch break. In addition, 53% of respondents felt that there was a widespread culture of skipping lunch breaks at their workplace, while 20% said that they had come under pressure to work through their lunch break. 

This is perhaps why so many employees feel a distinct sense of guilt on the rare occasions they do manage to get away and enjoy a decent lunch break. The law, however, doesn't have a great deal to say about lunch breaks. The Working Time Regulations state that workers are entitled to one uninterrupted 20-minute break in any continuous six-hour working period, while those over school leaving age but under 18 are entitled to a 30-minute break for every four-and-a-half-hours. In practice, though, even these meagre entitlements are all too often flouted by employers.

Despite all this, good lunch breaks are important - not just for personal wellbeing, but also for productivity at work. There are numerous reasons why you should ensure that your employees find the time to take a proper lunch break, and it's worth taking a look at some of them in closer detail.

Lunch breaks and what to do with them

What to eat on your lunch break

Various articles offer useful tips on the best foods to eat during your lunch break and many comment on how important it is to remember that whatever you eat during your lunch break will need to sustain you right the way through the rest of the afternoon, which makes it imperative to choose wisely. Foods that are rich in carbohydrate, such as white pasta, white bread and potatoes are likely to make you more lethargic as the day wears on, and so should be avoided. Instead, opt for wholegrain sandwiches or wholegrain pasta. These release energy more slowly than white carbohydrates and are therefore less likely to have a tiring effect.

Consider a change of scene

As we touched on above, employees getting away from their desks can be a challenge if they are overloaded with work. Some employers even frown upon it, but there are clear benefits from getting out of the office, so bosses should allow employees to take in a change of scene when you can. There are a number of reasons why this is so, and an article from CTV News lists some of them. First of all, eating lunch away from your desk can actually help to boost overall productivity. When you eat your lunch at your desk and stay there through your break, it can be hard to feel the benefit. By taking in a change of scene, however, employees are likely to find that their ability to retain information is enhanced, which of course helps workers get through their work efficiently.

Something as simple as a stroll through a park can really help to rejuvenate senses, which are so often dulled by workplace routine. It's also important to remember that sitting down for prolonged periods can be a potential health hazard, leaving you more susceptible to conditions even as serious as deep vein thrombosis.

What's more - and we might not like to think about it too much - work desks are frequently unhygienic. It's probably fair to say that most of us don't give this any thought before we sit down to devour a sandwich or whip out a snack, but many desks are commonly crawling with bacteria.

Lunch breaks are good for your health

The most important reason to take proper regular lunch breaks is that, simply put, they're good for your health. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest a clear correlation between irregular or short lunch breaks and increased stress at work. According to a 2011 survey from Aviva Health, almost one in three workers questioned said they did not take a regular lunch break at work, while a quarter said they would do so only if their workload permitted and 13% reported avoiding workplace meals altogether.

Among those organisations concerned by the current trend towards unduly curtailed or infrequent lunch breaks is the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, which has warned that failing to take sufficient lunch breaks can have detrimental effects both to workers' health and their productivity. Failing to take adequate lunch breaks may result in higher levels of absence due to sickness, so it is in both workers' and employers' interest to tackle this particular problem.

Lunch breaks benefit everyone

Although many workers report being pressurised into skipping lunch breaks, good employers know that demoralised, worn out and unhealthy employees are of little use to anyone, so it really is to the benefit of both worker and employer for everyone to enjoy a good meal and a change of scenery at lunch. There are many steps employers can take to encourage workers to take regular lunch breaks. Perhaps the most obvious of these is to simply tell employees that they need to enjoy a proper lunch break and make it clear to them that they are not expected to keep their nose to the grindstone at all times.

Employers can also take pro-active steps to encourage workers to take regular lunch breaks and to be more physically active generally. Edenred incentives such as luncheon vouchers or discounted gym memberships, to give just two examples, are particularly effective ways of nudging workers to take a break and get some exercise. This way, not only is workers' wellbeing and productivity likely to be improved, but workplace relations more generally will probably be much healthier.