Why you really shouldn’t be eating lunch at your desk

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We’ve all done it – chowing down on a crayfish and avocado Pret sandwich at our desks whilst sitting back on our swivel chair, responding to emails and answering calls in between bites. We’re all working so hard that many of us can’t even take a proper lunch break.

According to research by BUPA, almost a third of UK workers usually eat lunch at their desk, with 43 per cent saying that they were too busy to pause and take a break from their computers for even a few minutes. A separate survey commissioned by contact lens firm AcuVue suggests we spend about 1,700 hours at our computers every year. So, should we really be stepping away from our desks to take lunch?

The short answer is yes. Generally, our productivity goes down over the course of the day and we’re only able to concentrate for a limited amount of time before needing space to recharge. “Often meal breaks are a time where you are able to refresh your attention,” says André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School in London. “If you don’t take a break in which you go away from your actual place where you’re working, you’re not able to get a boost in attention. Meal breaks basically allow us a productivity refresh.”

“Essentially, with attention at work, you have diminishing returns, so that first half an hour you’re able to focus very well, but that tends to go down and down and your productivity also goes down,” Spicer adds. When you’re sat at your desk, often the temptation to answer a call, reply to an email or continue your work is so great that you’re never fully able to detach from what you’re doing on your computer, and replenish your energy.

In a 2012 study, researchers from the University of Surrey found that people who ate while distracted tended to overeat. Jane Ogden, professor in health psychology and one of the researchers on the study, even says that you don’t get as full when you eat at your desk because of work’s distractions.

“If you eat at your desk when you’re distracted through working and you’re not giving yourself a proper lunch break, then the food you eat doesn’t fill you up as much,” she says. “You don’t remember that you have eaten in the same way, and you don’t code food in the same way. You’re more likely to feel hungry in the afternoon and then eat more.”

Many of the negative effects could also relate to sedentarism, or the act of sitting in general. A study conducted back in 2012 on 800,000 Brits found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to get heart disease, diabetes and die of an early death.

“Multi-tasking at your desk may seem like a good idea work-wise, but it can affect your health. You’re more likely to overeat if you take lunch at your desk,” says Rebecca Rohrer, clinical fellow at BUPA UK, adding that we spend more than half of our waking hours sitting down. “Working long hours can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke too,” she points out.

Some suggest that the reason why office workers feel obliged to eat at their desks is because of the office work culture fostered in the UK. Presenteeism, or the expectation of being seen at your desk for more hours than you actually should be, often makes you look like you’re committed to your job, but as noted above, it’s not good for productivity, health or your wellbeing.

“We live in a culture where people often feel they have to say that they’re too busy to break for lunch or that they have to present themselves to the world as being too busy,” Ogden says. “Having a lunch break is seen as being under worked or having too little of a workload. Actually, in doing so they’re quite often more inefficient in the way that they work because they haven’t had a break.”

Spicer says that organisations should be encouraging their employees to take lunches away from their desk by, not just dismantling the culture around presenteeism, but also creating a physical environment in which employees can take themselves away from their desks. “There’s the question around whether there’s actually space for people in the workplace to go and actually eat lunch which they find conducive and nice to sit in,” he says. Ultimately, Spicer says that managers need to be a model for the behaviour they want to see in the workplace. “If they want people to be going for lunch, then they need to invite people along. They need to model the behaviour which they want to see.”

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