The Value of Lunch Breaks and a Word of Warning

Upon just returning from lunch I opened my email and saw an intriguing title for an article. What Happened to the Lunch Break? was written by Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer, and she asks the question “When’s the last time you left your desk and took a real lunch break?” She has found that many people answer they cannot remember the last time they took a lunch break and my experience has been the same. Many people do not step away and I feel they should. So I am writing about the value of lunch breaks and at the same time providing you with a word of warning about lunch breaks.
I personally derive a great deal of value from my lunch break so I make sure I take one every working day. Even the days I work from home I make sure I step away from my desk and phone to eat something and to disconnect for a bit. The days I am out I often try to have lunch with a client or a friend. Here is the value that I derive:

  • Breathing room. Because much of what I do is reading, writing and researching I just need to walk away and give my brain an opportunity to disconnect. I find that I come back more refreshed and have a renewed perspective.
  • Social connection. Those days where I have lunch with someone face-to-face I get to establish, renew or cement a social relation with someone that cannot be obtained through email or social media use. I have also found by spending more time with someone in that social setting actually makes it easier to “hear their voice” when you are communicating through electronic methods.
  • Solutions. Sometimes when you step away from a problem the solution to the problem may come when your mind is not focused on it. (That is one of the reasons daydreaming is a valuable activity.) Or perhaps in a conversation with someone they suggest a solution for you.

Of course some nourishment is always nice to get during this period of time. It does help with weight control… unless you are scarfing down a 1500 calorie burger.
Pappas wrote in her article:

A survey by CareerBuilder released in 2010 found that 18 percent of workers report always eating at their desks and 16 percent said they skipped lunch in favor of work. A third of employees surveyed said that they did take lunch, but spent less than 30 minutes eating. Likewise, a 2011 online survey by workplace consulting group Right Management found that 34 percent of North American workers said they ate at their desks, and 31 percent said they occasionally, rarely or never took lunch.

This is where my word of warning comes in. Letting nonexempt employees eat at their desk or workstation may be building overtime into each employee’s workweek and may result in Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) violations if that time is not compensated. The FLSA does not require lunch breaks but does say that if you provide for one the employee must be fully relieved off ALL duties for you to claim it as non-compensable time. If you have an employee who is eating at their desk and they continue to answer emails or the phone, then they are not fully relieved and they are owed compensation for that time. So if you have a standard 8am to 5pm workweek with an hour for lunch and the employee eats lunch at their desk then you owe them an extra 5 hours of compensation for that and all that time must be paid at the overtime rate.
Regardless of their non-exempt or exempt status I think you are better off giving people a lunch period just to break of the routine of the day. Long hours, monotonous schedules and no relaxation could cause depression. In another article written by Pappas, called How Depression Shrinks the Brain, she wrote:

Brain-imaging studies, post-mortem examinations of human brains and animal studies have all found that in depression, a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex shrinks. The neurons in this region, which is responsible for complex tasks from memory and sensory integration to the planning of actions, are also smaller and less dense in depressed people compared with healthy people.

So to keep your employees brains from shrinking give them a lunch! And while you are at it take one yourself. Nobody likes a boss with a little brain.

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