Do You Eat Lunch Alone At Your Desk? Why We Need to Reclaim Our Lunch Break


Lunchtime: the time when you walk away from work to sit down and eat, talk and laugh with your coworkers. It’s a time to be social, to relax, to recharge…

Wait, this doesn’t sound like lunchtime to you?

Perhaps it’s because with the ever-increasing demand on workers, lunch breaks seem to be gradually disappearing.

“I think workers are feeling an immense pressure to work through their lunch,” said David Wehde, AFL-CIO organizing director. “With the demands of productivity from workers going up and up, we’ve seen workers laid off and not replaced, so the work just gets spread around.”

A recent study shows that people work an additional 16 days a year when they fail to take their hour-long lunch break. Wehde said he believes the reason workers put up with these harsh working conditions is because they don’t know their rights. Still, shockingly only 22 states in the United States require some form of a lunch break. Lunch breaks are not required by federal law, and for many hourly-wage workers, lunch breaks are unpaid. 

“It’s a pretty raw deal,” Wehde said.

A few weeks ago, Applebee’s launched a new campaign offering a solution to the fading lunch break (below). The initiative, called “Lunch Decoy,” encourages workers to reclaim their lunch break by replacing themselves with a blow-up doll: “Simply inflate the decoy. Place at your desk. And then slip off for the lunch you deserve.” And yes, the chain restaurant is actually selling these blow-up dolls for $6.99 on Amazon. The dolls come in six different characters, including  “The Overachiever” and “The Cubicle Queen.”

“When we asked people why aren’t you getting out for lunch, they said they were worried about what their boss would think … or what would their coworkers think,” said Shannon Scott, Applebee’s executive director of marketing and communications. “So we thought, well, let’s come up with a way that nobody’s the wiser that you left the office. We’ll have the lunch decoy … to hold down the fort at the office while you’re out enjoying your lunch.’”

Scott said it’s too early to tell if the initiative has affected sales, but that there has been plenty of traffic to the site and after just one week out, they sold through more than half of their lunch decoy inventory.

Surely, the goal of their campaign is to ultimately convince workers to eat lunch at Applebee’s. (Even McDonald’s uses a labor-rights theme, pushing for workers to take lunch breaks, in its recent advertisement.) But it does raise some important questions about lunch breaks and how they’re slowly becoming a thing of the past.

In fact, a survey released last year found that 62 percent of workers with desk jobs eat lunch at their desk. Fifty-two percent bring lunch from home and eat it at their desk, while 23 percent purchase lunch from a restaurant or cafeteria and eat it at their desk. Twenty-one percent of respondents said they eat at a restaurant or cafeteria, while 27 percent bring lunch from home and eat it somewhere else, and 9 percent said other. Respondents were allowed to answer with more than one option if they did not have the same lunch routine everyday.

A majority of respondents said they eat at their desks to save time. 

“I eat alone at my desk in my office while still sort of working,” said Jennifer Goss, who does billing for a nonprofit behavioral health agency. “I seldom take breaks, as there is always something that must be done, or emails to answer, etc. I'm trying to learn to at least take a couple minutes to rest my eyes.”

Yet, it’s inefficient, actually, for employers not to encourage lunch breaks. Research has shown that allowing workers to take lunch breaks together can increase workplace productivity and morale as much as 25 percent. In fact, the closer workers are to their coworkers and the more coworkers they speak to throughout the day, the more productive they are.

“Although taking a longer lunch means I spend more time at the office in the afternoon, it's worth it to get outside and refresh the creative juices,” said Eric Keto, a videographer at East Oregonian Publishing Co., who takes a walk with his colleague every afternoon.

Wehde said that not only does an absence of lunch breaks decrease productivity, but it also eliminates a time for workers to get together and talk about their working conditions. 

“I wonder if employers aren’t in some cases deliberately restricting the opportunity workers have to compare notes,” he said. “The opportunities for people to actually talk to one another are limited … but the good news is workers … can be agents of their own change, whether that’s to get a lunch break that’s not required by law or to make sure that they’re getting the one that they’re entitled to.”

Wehde said he has increasingly been hearing from workers about job-related concerns, especially after the creation of his new column that addresses problems people face at their workplaces.

“They got this nagging suspicion that they’re not being treated fairly and that there should be something they could do about it,” he said.

Regardless of occupation, as jobs are having less of a team-project-like sense and more of a work-for-and-by-yourself sense, perhaps the biggest downfall of missing lunch breaks is not having a chance to simply socialize with coworkers.

For Dean Bottino, a graphic designer, his lunch break is one of the only times he has to socialize.

“I eat lunch at my desk or with coworkers at the office,” he said. “The breaks are very important to me because I don't have a lot of time after work to make friends or talk to people.”

Amelia Blevins, a newly employed editorial assistant at a publishing company, said she has appreciated being able to talk to and become friends with her coworkers during lunchtime.

“I almost always eat with my coworkers at the office,” she said. “We usually eat out on the sundeck. I eat with them because I think it's important to build good social relationships with your peers and coworkers.”

Possibly the scariest part of our tendency to skip lunch breaks is our blind acceptance of this unhealthy trend. Eating lunch at your desk has increasingly become a part of office customs, and many fail to think twice about taking a break from work.

Daniel Oliver, a lab coordinator at a research hospital, wishes it felt acceptable to take a lunch.

He said, “As much as I value my theoretical lunch break, I always end up eating at my desk because that's the department culture, and I feel like I need to be at my desk.”

Wehde said workers are having a “slippery slope of lowered expectations.”

He said: “Having time for lunch or a break from your job really used to be a much more common practice, but if folks are working through their breaks and expecting that that’s what they are expected to do in order to get their jobs done, think about how that shapes their view of what their expectations could be in other categories.”

So newsflash: Despite popular belief, it is okay to take your legal break to eat lunch and socialize with colleagues. And if you’re not living in a state where lunch breaks are required by law, then it is permissible to organize and fight for them. Too often employers aim to both divide and overwork workers because, in this poor economic state, workers are so grateful just to have jobs that they forget they have rights and should be treated with respect. Plus, in the end, employers need workers to sustain their businesses and organizations — if we deem poor working conditions as just unacceptable, employers will be forced to enhance them.

“People need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way,” Wehde said. “Because people ultimately want something different from what they have if they think about it.”

Perhaps we want something more like the flexible working conditions around the world? After all, I could always go French and take a two-hour lunch break or dance away the midday like the Swedes.

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