In a world with over 6,000 native tongues, the language of food is universal. Since the days of the campfire food has brought people together, helping forge new relationships and deepen existing ones.

In the corporate world though, all that seems pretty remote, with over a third of UK office workers resorting to eating lunch at their desk. Why is lunch the one opportunity to embrace our humanity in the daily rat race being skipped?

 

Why do office workers skip the lunch break?

New research has shown that half of all British workers regularly skip lunch. Out of all UK workers, London workers are the most likely to forgo their lunch break. Slightly more surprising is the fact that HR themselves are the biggest offenders. 70 percent of HR professionals in the field don’t take a break at all during the day.

Part of the problem is a culture of competitiveness. Ever since Wall Street antihero Gordon Gekko told us that lunch is “for wimps”, skipping lunch has been associated with office machismo. And despite many of London’s trendiest companies claiming to “put culture first”, taking a full lunch break is still seen by many as a sign of idleness.

Also to blame is the never-ending march of technology even if we’re not actually working, our screens draw us to our desks with entertainment, news and social networking, increasing the temptation to eat al desko.

 

What’s wrong with this?

When we’re drowning in work, taking a break to eat and shoot the breeze with colleagues isn’t always the first thing on our minds. However, eating alone regularly can have serious adverse effects, including low morale, lack of engagement and social isolation. Eventually, it will also impact physical health. In a study published by ‘Obesity Research & Clinical Practice,’ eating alone was associated with a 45 percent increased risk of obesity. A quick snack at the desk instead of a proper lunch can deprive our brains of much-needed nutrients needed to function at peak level. Furthermore, we miss out on the opportunity to stretch our legs sitting for prolonged periods has been linked to type 2 diabetes, back problems and cancer, according to the NHS.

There’s also an impact on the mood in the office. For many companies, lunch is not just part of office culture, it is the office culture – making the trend towards eating alone that much more worrying. By overlooking the importance of the lunch break to culture, companies are missing out on a substantial opportunity.

 

Missed opportunity

Eating lunch at the desk detracts from our sense of the workplace as a sociable, collaborative space. It’s the one time people can interact on a human basis, develop friendships and form the “unplanned collaborations” which can inspire much of a company’s creative output. Encouraging full, 1-hour lunch breaks helps invigorate culture while boosting morale and team collaboration.

Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, found positive correlations between work performance and eating as a team. ‘‘Workplace satisfaction is so much higher if you eat with your colleagues’’, Wansink said. ‘‘You like your job more — and you like your colleagues better”. Stronger personal connections can enable more effective communication between team members, and provide an extra reason to give it our all.

On top of team bonding, a lunch break can help individuals unleash their full creative potential. According to Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at the University of California-Davis, “never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative. It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested”.

If the trend gives cause for concern, there are signs of hope too. “One encouragement is that this culture is largely coming from employees themselves rather than being enforced by employers. That said, we would call on employers to encourage their staff to take regular breaks away from their workstation and to reap the benefits that come from this”, said totaljobs HR Director David Clift.

 

Should it matter to employers?

In the millennial workplace, a vibrant company culture should really be considered an end in itself, but even the most profit-minded bosses should take note. Proper lunch breaks can improve real metrics, including employee productivity and retention.

In a study conducted at Staples, 86 percent of employees say that taking a break improved their productivity at work. “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”, said Jennier Deal, a research scientist from the University of Southern California.

As the market for talent is becoming increasingly competitive, a company’s culture can help it stand out from the crowd. Having lunch together not only works wonders for culture but also stimulates employee engagement with the firm – and engaged employees are 59% less likely to quit, according to a Gallup poll.

 

What can managers do?

The overall outlook still seems pretty bleak. The lunch break has been squeezed to near-extinction by a decades-long trend towards presenteeism, and an underappreciation of how proper downtime resets the mind. What can be done about it?

One solution is organising team lunches at least once a week. Even if your team isn’t big, it can be a daunting task to consistently organise a lunch, but it can be well worth the effort as personal connections are built.

Another solution is providing a designated area for eating and drinking. If the employees don’t have the time to go out and eat food, having a well thought-out, enjoyable space for eating lunch can go a long way.

Last but not least, managers should lead by example. Get out yourself and explore the area properly – especially if you’re based in a place with a vibrant indie food culture like central London – and make a point of eating in the communal areas with whoever’s around. Others will feel empowered to do the same.

A little bit of effort could have an outsized effect on your company’s culture. You’ll be a step closer to having a healthy, productive, engaged workforce, while allowing your team to finally reclaim the long lost lunch break.