workplace

America's lunch hour on the endangered list

Jan. 18, 2012 at 7:55 AM ET

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Multitasking eats the lunch hour. More people than ever in America are skipping lunch hours and eating at their desks instead.

Employees in Hong Kong’s financial district staged a protest last week because their lunch break of 90 minutes was going to be shortened to only an hour.

Here in the United States, lunch hour is unheard of for many U.S. workers, yet nobody is marching in the streets over it.

Americans don’t seem to have enough time for an actual lunch break. Only 35 percent of employees in this country say they almost always take a lunch break, according to a web survey in 2011 of about 750 respondents by Right Management, an HR consulting firm. Another poll by the company taken in 2010 that surveyed 2,300 found nearly 50 percent of U.S. workers consistently took time off for a midday meal.

“Lunch patterns allow us to infer a few things about the North American workplace; and one thing that we already know is that the pressure for productivity and performance can be relentless,” said Michael Haid, senior vice president of talent management at Right Management. “This pressure is showing up in various ways like our finding that one-in-three employees are very likely now in the habit of taking lunch at their computers and phones and with supervisors and colleagues.”

About 65 percent of employees either eat at their desk or don’t take lunch breaks at all, according to the company’s recent survey.

It’s not just rank and file workers. A study by CareerBuilder found that about 40 percent of corporate executives brownbag their lunches, while only 19 percent eat out at a sit-down restaurant, and 17 percent get fast food.

And it’s women executives who seem most lunch-away-from-the-office adverse. More than half, or 57 percent, of women polled said they brought their lunch from home, compared to 36 percent among their male manager counterparts.

Sure, it looks good if you’re busting your butt to get work done, especially in this tough job market, but not taking time out for a healthy lunch could have far-reaching ramifications.

The lunch hour was always seen as a time to get away from the office or factory floor, and that's what workplace experts say workers need to get the full benefits of a meal break. 

It's critical for workers to leave the office for lunch, said career and executive coach Rebecca Weingarten, in order "to clear their heads and gain perspective on what they're working on. Also if you're stumped with a problem, thinking about something else actually helps the brain process and come up with a solution."

And Doug Wright, head of clinical development for European insurance firm Aviva Health, which published a report on workers eating habits late last year, added: “It’s well documented that eating more healthily can improve general wellbeing and life expectancy, so there are countless benefits to adopting this approach in the workplace, It’s also important for people to take a break from their desks where possible as this can help improve both morale and efficiency for employees.”

There are no federal laws mandating lunch breaks. “It’s actually something that’s regulated on a state-by-state basis,” said Marc Mandelman, an employment attorney for Proskauer in New York.

Photoblog: Adios a la siesta? Spain's long lunches under threat

In New York, he explained, “you have to provide at least a half an hour lunch break to employees in most situations. But depending on the industry, there may be different requirements.”

There are 22 states with some sort of meal-break mandates on the books, according to Department of Labor data. See this chart to find out if your state is one of them.

Most white-collar jobs, Mandelman continued, generally provide about an hour for meal breaks.

Even so, that doesn’t mean workers are taking the time to munch in peace.

“I wonder if the reluctance to take a break is an expression of devotion or a negative consequence of the unrelenting pressure some organizations are exerting on their workforces to get more done with fewer resources,” said Haid. “Taking time away from one’s desk for lunch would help reduce tension and boost energy. But our research results might lead us to ask is that still a real option for people now?”

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