The Serious Downside of Working Lunches

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Over the past twenty years, I’ve facilitated thousands of workshops during which my clients engage in the significant mental effort required to develop Balanced Scorecards that will lead to the execution of their strategy. It’s hard work – intellectually demanding and often tiring, but ultimately rewarding when the entire team lands on the same strategic page, understanding exactly what success looks like and how they’ll get there.

When the clock ticks close to noon during these events it’s not uncommon for participants to meet my calls for a lunch break with a few sneers and remarks that suggest the not so subtle subtext of: “We’re professionals, we don’t need a lunch break…we can power through this!” I certainly understand the desire to capitalize on the momentum that has accumulated during the morning session, and applaud the work ethic of those wanting to carry on without a break, but as a mounting body of research indicates, working through lunch is simply not a good idea for you, or your organization.

Chris Cunningham, University of Tennessee Professor of Industrial-Organizational and Occupational Health believes a mid-day break is essential in restoring the energy and focus necessary to tackle the pressing problems most of us encounter in our day-to-day work lives. “The attention it takes to focus at work drains (people) of psychological, social, and material reserves, leading to stress and lower productivity. Taking a lunch break away from the desk lets people separate themselves from the source of that drain.”

It’s not just productivity that suffers when you sit at your desk or in a conference room toil
ing through the lunch hour, but in fact you’re putting your health in jeopardy. University of Arizona researchers found that the typical office worker’s desk has about 400 times more germs per square inch than an office toilet seat. The nastiest germ minefields are your keyboard and phone, storing in excess of 20,000 germs per square inch. So if you think hiding out in your office is protecting you from that flu bug going around the office, think again. A cold is small potatoes, however, compared to the damage that excess sitting can cause in the long term. Research from the Mayo Clinic has linked sitting for extended periods of time with a number of significant health concerns including obesity and metabolic syndrome, a deleterious band of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. As if that weren’t bad enough, the research also suggests that sitting too much can increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Fortunately, we can combat these issues with relative ease. Simply wiping your work surface with hand sanitizer can eliminate the vast majority of germs taking up residence around your desk. As to the bigger problems related to excess sitting, the best medicine is to simply get up and get away at lunch, preferably interacting with nature. You don’t need a vigorous hike lasting a full hour, everyone’s clock is different, and for some a ten-minute stroll around your parking lot may be all you need to re-energize and re-focus for the rest of the day. Whatever you choose, know that you’re doing both your mind and body a great service. Research documenting the brain’s ability to subconsciously problem solve is piling up rapidly, so an answer to that challenge you just couldn’t solve before lunch, no matter how hard you tried, may come flashing through while you’re out enjoying a short break. In addition to the mental breakthroughs you’ll enjoy, getting up and spending a few minutes outside is probably the best thing you can do to restore the reserves of energy and focus we all need to succeed in today’s workplace.

Notes:

-Making the Most of Your Lunch Hour, Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2013.
-Germ statistics from: http://www.cnn.com/2004/HEALTH/12/13/cold.flu.desk/index.html

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