by Ruchika Tulshyan
January 21, 2021
Summary. Widespread remote work has led to longer workdays and more emails and meetings for many employees. Combine that with a back-to-back meeting culture, and foregoing breaks can be hard to avoid. But taking real lunch breaks has been linked to improved job… more
In 2019, I was invited to share what I would consider a life well-lived. While 2019 looked considerably different than 2020, upon reflection, my answer remains the same:
“I’d consider my life well-lived if I took time to eat lunch during the workday almost every day. This means not at my desk, not in a meeting or while working, but connecting with someone, or even myself, while I eat mindfully.”
I’m committing to doubling down on this in 2021.
Remote working has made it nearly impossible to keep a commitment I try to stick to: to step away from work to eat lunch or go for a walk in the middle of the day. As we try to make sense of the painful year that just passed and plan for 2021 and the new normal at work, I’d like to add: let’s normalize a proper, generous lunch break — both in the remote work environment and especially when we return to any sort of regular, in-person office environment.
North American workers are famously overworked; in 2018, they took an average of 17.4 vacation days, leaving 768 million vacation days on the table. And that’s if they were lucky enough to have vacation days at all — the U.S. has the distinct (dis)honor of being the only country in the OECD that doesn’t guarantee a single day of federally mandated paid time off. The nation’s workers also eschew lunch to work longer. In fact, 62% of American workers say they eat lunch at their desks.
Research shows that, thanks to remote work, we’re spending an average of 48.5 minutes more at work each day, attending more meetings, and navigating more emails. While I’ve long been dedicated to my lunchtime commitment — whether it’s eating away from my desk, catching up with a friend, or going for a walk — I found myself succumbing to the “eat mindlessly in front of your computer” habit (and skipping meals and walks altogether) for much of 2020.
That’s a shame, because as a Singaporean, lunch time has always been sacred for me. And indeed, we have the privilege of having convenient, quick, relatively healthy, and cost-effective options (for example, hawker centers) in close proximity to most businesses, which creates ideal conditions for team lunches. I’ve frequently seen
people from all different backgrounds, cultures, job functions, and levels convene during lunch, even in pandemic times. There are enforced pandemic norms, including a limit on the size of groups, but making time to connect and gather for meals (safely) remains important to the average Singaporean worker. I’ve heard of teams that work remotely but still make a point to meet for lunch in small groups. While dining out might not be an option for most workers in other countries for the foreseeable future, the commitment to taking a break, mindfully eating lunch, and ideally even connecting with a team member or the whole team (virtually) is one I advocate wholeheartedly.
The onus lies on leaders to create the psychological safety for employees to take time for lunch. Managers must ensure that their teams don’t get penalized or viewed as less productive and foster an environment where taking time for lunch is a norm within the organization.
Everyone benefits when workplace lunches are normalized. One survey found that North American employees who take a lunch break every day reported higher engagement based on metrics including job satisfaction, productivity, and likelihood to recommend working there to others. Recent research also found that firefighters who ate lunch together reported that it was a “central component of keeping their teams operating effectively.” I’d be willing to bet that more organizations could benefit from greater team effectiveness, and normalizing lunch is a great place to start, whether it’s to reduce stress and burnout, encourage team-building, or foster an organizational culture that doesn’t equate overwork with productivity.
Here’s how employers can realize those benefits by leading the charge on creating an inclusive lunch culture at work.
Take lunch — visibly. The most impactful action is the simplest. When managers take time to step away from their desks and take a break, it creates an environment where we don’t always have to be
busy (or act like we are) to be considered productive. Infosys co- founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, famous for high employee morale at the Indian tech giant, ate lunch in the cafeteria with employees whenever he could, even standing in line for his meal. His values- based leadership was so profound that the company experienced high attrition when he retired.
As a leader in the remote work environment, that could be creating an “at lunch” notification, mentioning at the team meeting that you’ll be away from your screen during lunch, or verbally acknowledging in the afternoon, “I’m back from lunch.”
The important thing here isn’t the meal itself, but rather to make it okay to leave your workplace (remote or not) and take a break, whether that’s to eat, exercise, or go for a walk. When leaders take breaks and make it known that they’re protecting that time, employees feel empowered to do the same. When I worked in tech, seeing most managers eating at their desks (or just working through lunch) made me feel uneasy about taking a lunch break. Instead, I’d snack incessantly at my desk, which had a terrible impact on my health and left me feeling exhausted and burned out at the end of most workdays.
Limit meetings at some mid-day hour. Back-to-back meetings are characteristic of North American work culture and cause employees at many companies to skip lunch. If companies instead designated a time for all employees to eat or even run an errand or two every day, more of them would actually take that time for themselves. Lead by example by telling your team, “This is my lunch hour. Don’t schedule meetings at that time, unless it’s to casually connect. Please take your full hour for lunch, too.”
Encourage recurring lunch events. One leader I interviewed years ago mentioned having company-sponsored, monthly “culture lunches” at her company, where employees from different backgrounds could sign up to bring in a meal from their culture to share with colleagues. According to her, it created a lively
environment where employees from diverse backgrounds could celebrate their culture with colleagues. If you work in a large organization, you could facilitate rotating, smaller-group culture lunches, both as a way for people to get to know their colleagues and to break down silos between departments. Research shows that women and people of color are disproportionately saddled with these kinds of “office housework” tasks, so make sure they’re distributed evenly across employees.
Organize lunchtime networking events, and ensure leaders are present. Employees are more likely to leave their (virtual) desks to attend scheduled activities when they see the value in doing so — for example, in connecting with leaders. Research continues to link social interactions with greater team trust, and organizations that encourage employees to build relationships with one another benefit in many ways. One organization I consulted with held a reading club where teams could learn and discuss a new concept and apply that knowledge to problems they were already working on, which spurred innovation. These relationships can also break down silos and create greater inclusion of underrepresented team members, who may not always have access to leadership without deliberate opportunities to connect. Another bonus of lunchtime networking is that it’s inclusive of people who can’t make evening events because of family, caregiving, or other commitments. Importantly, these events should be in addition to — not a replacement for — self-directed lunch breaks.
Prioritize lunch, even if you work for yourself. When I first started my consulting practice, I quickly stopped listening to my own advice and routinely worked through lunch. Eventually, it became clear that I was going to burn out — not taking breaks was just not sustainable. When I take the time to take a proper lunch break, I notice I eat healthier food, and the forced break helps me refresh and clear my mind, bringing a fresh perspective to my work. When I’m safely back to an in-person environment, I plan to intentionally make time for at least two to four lunches a month to build relationships that end up also having business benefits. For now, I’m finding
comfort in afternoon virtual walk-and-talks to connect with colleagues or friends (like Nilofer Merchant encouraged back in 2013).
Last year showed us the importance of human connection, and most of us are aching to spend in-person time with our colleagues when it’s safe. Let’s make it more than okay to take a (lunch) break, whether we choose to spend it eating alone, going for a walk, or dining with colleagues. I, for one, hope the back-to-back meeting environment is something we can leave behind in 2021.
For me, that’s a life well-worked and lived.
Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace and the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. She is writing a forthcoming book about women of color at work.