The humble lunch break is eroding under a dual assault from bosses and staff who think that skipping breaks is a sign of commitment, according to recent research.
In a poll of 1,600 employees across the US and Canada,  hygiene products firm Tork found a direct correlation between workers who take regular breaks and levels of employee engagement and job satisfaction. However, North American workers are not currently taking breaks as often as they’d prefer for fear of slipping into disfavour.
Indeed, the poll discovered:
- 34% of bosses consider how often an employee takes a lunch break when evaluating job performance;
- 22% of bosses think that employees who take regular lunch breaks are less hardworking, and
- 13% of North American workers think their co-workers would judge them negatively if they take regular lunch breaks.
In a press release announcing the findings,  Center for Creative Leadership senior research scientist Jennifer Deal said: “Reluctance to take a lunch break is often perceived as a display of dedication to the job. In reality, taking time away for a lunch break can help to reduce stress, increase engagement and restore energy levels, making employees feel more effective and productive back at the office.”
Elaborating on that in a Forbes interview with corporate wellness expert Alan Kohll,  Deal pointed out that “adequate recovery is critical for top performance”, adding: “Energy isn’t unlimited, and just as athletes have halftime to rest during a game, employees need to rest so they can do their best work. Taking a break in the middle of the day for lunch is a recovery period, allowing employees to come back refreshed and reinvigorated for the second half – as [Tork’s] research clearly shows.”
With that in mind, what can leaders do to change attitudes to breaks among managers, and to incentivise reluctant staff?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This, to me, is such a good example of an area where we don’t like evidence, and where we’re more comfortable basing our conclusions upon our own, anecdotal insights. It’s clear that taking a break, making sure you hydrate and having an occasional walk around can only be positive steps – as the Center for Creative Leadership’s Jennifer Deal eloquently explains. Why are we so reluctant to believe the evidence and follow good advice?”
Cooper notes: “with takeaway food services becoming more widespread, it’s so easy to fall into a habit of buying food and eating at while still rooted firmly to your desk. And in many ways, by expecting people to remain at their desks for as long as possible, leaders are treating staff purely as a factor of production – almost like a machine that isn’t allowed to tire. And of course, we know that’s not what a workforce is: we want people to work with energy and enthusiasm. So, how we encourage staff to rekindle and get another energy shot in their systems is really important.”
She adds: “I think the solution here is to encourage people to generate their own evidence, which goes back to one of our recurrent themes: the value of leading by example. If, as a team leader, you stop to take a break and come back evidencing that you’re invigorated and with bags of renewed enthusiasm, then you can challenge and encourage your people to do the same. Then you can all have a brief evaluation reflecting on how much better your team members feel for taking a break, how much less stressed they are – and how that half-hour or hour of relaxation was really well spent. If you conduct that almost on-the-spot research, you can highlight compelling evidence that your people have actually gathered themselves.”
For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute