How unhealthy are our lunchtime habits?

Our children’s lunchtime has been the topic of discussion in the UK and the US for years. Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama have each made it their personal goal to see that schools offer nutritional lunches to ensure that our children grow up healthily. But as adults, are our lunchtime habits any better than the school dinners or cafeteria lunches that we grew up on?

It’s not so much what we’re consuming that’s making us unhealthy these days (although for some that will add to the issue) but the fact that many workers don’t take a break at lunchtime. According to Bupa research from last year, nearly two thirds of British workers say that they are too busy to take the 20 minute break required by law when working six hours or more.

The study, which surveyed 2,000 people, also found that only 29 per cent of employees take a lunch break, while 28 per cent are not taking any break at all during the work day.

But even when people do try to take a break, they often find that they end up continuing with their work – 42 per cent say they answer work calls and 40 per cent admit to replying to work emails while on a break. Nearly half of employees said that they have too much work to rest even for a few minutes.

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Patrick Watt, corporate director at Bupa, said that the fact that employers are not encouraging staff to take a break at lunchtime is worrying. “Not only does this affect productivity levels, but it can have far wider implications on business performance,” he said. “Taking a proper break helps employees to stay alert, focused, and performing at their peak.”

The situation in America is even worse. According to research, just one in five American employees steps away from their desk for a midday meal.  The survey, carried out by Right Management, also found that 28 per cent seldom take a break for lunch.

“We might infer that far fewer employees are feeling comfortable enough with their work loads and demands to actually take time away to enjoy breaks for meals,” Michael Haid, senior vice president for talent management at Right Management, said. “This is yet another warning sign of the relentless stress experienced by workers in the US and Canada. Of course, they may have lunch, but it doesn’t constitute a real break from work as they must also monitor the phone and email or do any number of other work related tasks while eating.”

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Haid said that it comes down to culture at the organisation, with many workplaces making employees feel as though they should apologise for stepping away from the desk for even half an hour. “One has to ask if such pressure without any let up actually benefits the individual or the organisation,” he said. “I mean, does it really improve performance? What are the longer term consequences for employee health and engagement?”

He added: “Most organisations are shifting into new employment models made possible by technology and workers are adapting. But taking a break during the work day is still beneficial. Employees should use the time to refresh and re-energize, even if it means eating at their desk and then taking a walk just to get outside of their immediate work environment, if only for a short time.”

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