Executives’ Lunch Breaks Being Eaten Away

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 26, 2008
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The incredible shrinking lunch break is reaching into upper management, according to a survey of senior executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest companies.

Those at director level and above spend, on average, 35 minutes at lunch—seven fewer minutes than in 2003—and they work through lunch about three days a week, according to the OfficeTeam telephone survey conducted in early 2008 with 150 respondents.

Perhaps they’ve embraced the view espoused by Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider Michael Douglas played in the 1987 movie, Wall Street, when a colleague asked him to lunch.

“Lunch?” Gekko replies, pacing his Manhattan office while taking his blood pressure. “Aw, you gotta be kidding. Lunch is for wimps.”

The eroding workplace lunch break may have to do with the stepped-up pace of the business world, suggests Dave Willmer, OfficeTeam executive director.

“In today’s 24/7 workplace, a lunch break often takes a backseat to e-mails, phone calls, meetings and pressing deadlines,” he said in a press release.

“Many people are doing more work with fewer resources and, therefore, putting in more time at their desks,” he added. “Some may also be working across time zones and forgoing lunch breaks to accommodate their colleagues’ schedules.”

Technology plays a part, says Brandi Britton, a regional manager for OfficeTeam.

“A heavier workload and technology allows us to get consumed [with work] and prevents us from taking longer lunches,” she told SHRM Online.

Crucial to Peak Performance

Short lunch breaks, if they’re taken at all, have become the norm among workers in recent years, according to various surveys from around the world.

More than half of U.K. workers say they rarely or never are able to eat lunch away from their desks, “evidence that the lunch break is dying out,” according to a 2008 report from Chiumento, a London-based HR consultancy.

Its findings are based on responses in May and June 2008 from more than 350 organizations with an average of 9,333 employees. Respondents were HR professionals from the director level and below.

Spearheaded by Andrew Hill, Chiumento’s director of talent management, the report looked at factors such as long meetings, e-mail and lack of lunch breaks in exploring the link between energy and its effect on productivity.

Those who eat lunch away from their desks are better able to cope with the stress of work than those who stay at their desks, the report said. “Far from being for wimps, a lunch break is crucial in ensuring peak performance.”

Hill likened its importance to that of sleep.

“We all know sleep has a healing effect, and in the same way taking a break has a healing effect,” he told SHRM Online following a workday that included a two-hour networking lunch.

“Some of the best problem-solving happens after we’ve had a break.”

Another survey, involving 5,000 United Kingdom workers, found that eight out of 10 take 30 minutes or less for lunch. And a 2005 Steelcase survey of 700 U.S. office workers found that the typical lunch break was 30 minutes or less, with women more likely than men to take those shorter breaks.

The eroding of the lunch break has filtered down to schools. One competitive U.S. high school, where nearly half of its students skipped lunch because their schedules were so jam-packed, has responded by making lunch a required event, according to a May 24, 2008, New York Times report.

Breaking for lunch gives people time to recharge their batteries, and workers often take their cue from upper management, according to OfficeTeam’s Britton.

“The old-fashioned thing of ‘lead by example’ still applies to this area,” she said. “If managers are not taking their lunches the staff underneath them thinks they shouldn’t either.”

While employees—even senior executives—might fear that they won’t look committed to the organization by taking a lunch break, “it comes back to what is the end result … and the end result is a better work product,” Britton said.

No Legal Obligation

Employers can’t make taking lunch and rest breaks mandatory—in July 2008 the California Court of Appeal held that employers there are not obligated to ensure workers take meal and rest breaks—but OfficeTeam suggests that senior executives take the following steps to reclaiming their own workplace lunch break:

  • Schedule lunches with colleagues so that during a busy period a team meeting becomes a working lunch outside the office.
  • Book your lunch as an appointment on your online calendar. This is to prevent co-workers from scheduling calls or meetings during that time; be flexible if there are no other options, though.
  • Walk away from your desk. Eat in the lunch or break room, or take a walk around the office if you are unable to leave the building for lunch.
  • Put work aside. If you must eat at your desk or phone, face away from them and indulge in a non-work activity such as reading the newspaper.

Chiumento’s Hill thinks encouraging lunch breaks is one way employers can brand themselves to appeal to younger workers, such as those from Generation Y.

It shows, he said, that the organization values balance and that “you want them at their best.”

“We’ve got some of the most talented individuals in our businesses and they’re dropping out and are disaffected because they’re working too long. We need to find ways to work smarter.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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