A new Robert Half/OfficeTeam study found that nearly half of workers either don't take lunch breaks or take breaks that last 30 minutes or less. Many workers also spend their time multitasking while they eat. More than four in 10 (42 percent) reported that, aside from eating, they spend this time socializing with colleagues, while 29 percent admitted they do work during lunch breaks.
Why has the traditional lunch hour diminished so significantly? The obvious culprit is technology. Now that it’s easier to keep typing away while we eat, we feel freer to do so. In fact, only a tiny 1 percent of survey respondents said they do nothing but eat their lunch.
A secondary cause is a dysfunctional culture. Some organizations are so competitive that employees feel they must work around the clock in order to keep their jobs and get ahead. They view taking a well-deserved lunch break as a sign of weakness or laziness.
In a business world that's more stressful than ever, putting in long hours without a break is bad for health, morale and productivity. How can owners and managers help turn things around?
Walk the Talk
Instead of paying lip service to the idea of taking a break, let your employees see you doing it yourself. Come on, it won’t kill you. As Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, says, “Lunch breaks are a time to get in the proper nutrients and give your brain a rest—and that means you’ll have the energy and focus to get through the rest of the day.” This applies to you as well as your team.
Make It a Communal Affair
Put a big table in your break room or kitchen area and hold court there every day at lunchtime. Encourage your employees to join you. Show them that hanging out with colleagues (and yes, even the boss) and interacting on a personal level can be a fun way to pass the workday and get to know each other better. These gatherings can also spark creativity and innovation in your business.
Open Your Wallet
When teams are experiencing especially busy periods, owners and managers should consider having lunch or dinner brought in. “This will ensure that employees take a break to eat even if they don’t feel like they have time to leave the office,” Hosking says. If you're going to do this, however, be conscious of your employees’ dietary restrictions and preferences.
Plan a Wellness Activity
A break with exercise is even better than a break with just food. During the warmer months, take your team outside for a picnic and hold a meeting while walking around the block. Sponsor an initiative that will get their hearts pumping, like a Zumba class or softball league. Even once a month or quarter can go a long way for employees who never seem to leave the office.
Be Flexible With Timing
It won’t be convenient for every employee to take a break exactly at noon, and you don’t want that anyway. Tell your team explicitly that time off earlier or later in the day is acceptable. An hour at the gym from 4 to 5 p.m. is the same as an hour at the gym from 12 to 1 pm., and an employee who takes off later in the day may be willing to man the fort during the evening hours.
Facilitating breaks will, of course, improve engagement and retention. However, it will also keep you out of legal trouble, especially if you have hourly employees. Work breaks are mandated by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and employers who can’t spare employees for breaks may be subject to fines and other penalties.
Read more articles on company culture.