The Lunch Break Re-examined

Lunch and its Impact on Employee Recovery

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

The Question

Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gecko, in the iconic movie Wall Street tells Charlie Sheen that lunch is for wimps.  Up until reading an impressive article in the Academy of Management Journal, which you can find here, we thought the same. But not anymore. The empirical research should give us all pause about skipping or working through lunch in the future. 

Theory

The authors of this study assert that employee fatigue is a real and serious issue.  One way to reduce the impact of fatigue is to encourage and allow time for breaks that help us recharge. 

But this assertion is too simple and these social scientists were pretty smart.  They stake an early claim that not all lunch breaks are created equal.  Specifically, we can use lunch breaks to a) do more work, b) meet up with colleagues, or c) eat alone and relax and watch cat videos on YouTube. 

They advanced two competing and contradicting theories.  The first theory argues that we need that 30 minute lunch break to recharge our batteries that get depleted throughout the day.  Generally, eating alone or relaxing fulfills the essence of this theory.  At odds, though, is a social theory that argues that eating with colleagues fulfills a social need of attachment and cohesion and bonding.  It suggests that breaking bread with those you work with will charge your batteries and be a source of energy.    

The Samples and Measures

The researchers studied administrative employees at a large North American University to see the impact of lunch on end-of-day fatigue.  They began by asking focal employees about their lunch activity and whether it was a relaxing activity, a work activity (working through lunch), or a social activity (eating with others).  They also created a scale that captured the perceived autonomy that employees felt about their lunch break.  For instance, if a boss tells you that you have to work through lunch, you have no autonomy.  Conversely, if you can do exactly what you want to do during lunch, you have high levels of autonomy based on this scale.

They also got coworkers to assess these focal employees and their fatigue level at the end of the day.  Akin to spying, it offers less bias as peers weighed in on fatigue and energy levels. 

We Now Open the Kimono

The results are straightforward until they’re not. 

Let’s begin with the competing theories mentioned above.  Of the 3 types of lunches, only a relaxing lunch was correlated to lower levels of fatigue at the end of the day.  Working lunches, of course, don’t lead to less fatigue.  Social lunches don’t appear to be an energy booster either.  Social lunches were statistically linked to higher fatigue at the end of the day.  The reasoning may be that during social lunches, even with colleagues, we spend energy regulating our behavior and our opinions.  In a sense, we’re on a stage and we know that we’re being judged and assessed.  This helps explain why social lunches with colleagues result in greater fatigue. 

Okay, now the not-so-straightforward results.  Things get interesting when we consider the impact of lunch break autonomy.  When we get to set our own agenda for lunch, results change.  For instance, our fatigue spikes when we’re forced or feel compelled to go to a social lunch.  The same is said for working lunches.  When we choose to work through lunch on our own terms, there’s a negligible impact on fatigue.  However, when our boss demands that we work through lunch, our fatigue is much more likely to increase.  To summarize, when we have only moderate or low control on how we spend our lunch break, fatigue appears to jump. 

Using the Data

Let’s use this research to become more sophisticated and better leaders and managers.

Encouraging employees to work through lunch or to attend a social lunch doesn’t appear to help employees recover from the stresses of their job. This research suggests a hands-off approach to the lunch break and to allow those we lead to decide on their own how they spend this break. 

Many training sessions and dreaded off-sites incorporate lunch into the day’s events and activities as a form of teambuilding.  This research casts doubt on that practice.  Just maybe, employees should get a break from the teambuilding fun to decompress and spend lunch in a way that makes them feel energized.  Eating chicken wraps next to your peers, can contribute to a depleted and unsatisfied employee.    

Lastly, we need to be aware, ourselves, of how we spend lunch.  Skipping it or working through it does seem to have consequences.  According to this study, we arrive at a simple conclusion—lunch matters. 

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