Should you grab a bite at your desk or eat with your colleagues? That depends on what’s on your agenda for the rest of the day.
Lunch hours are getting shorter and shorter, and even disappearing in some parts of today’s working world. With fewer employees asked to accomplish more in a day, many Americans treat lunch not as a break but as just another task to squeeze into an already over-booked day. As TIME’s Victor Luckerson wrote in a recent post:
In 1990, more than half of Americans took at least 30 minutes for lunch, according to a Gallup Poll. Today only one third of workers take a lunch break away from their desk. Even the “power lunch,” where big-time bosses make business decisions over a sit-down meal, seems to be in danger. A CareerBuilder.com survey last year found that executives are twice as likely to bring lunch from home over going to a real restaurant.
But do quick meals at the desk actually improve productivity over more leisurely meals? According to the latest study published in the journal PLOS ONE, they could help you to get more done.
The researchers only studied 32 employees, so the findings are debatable. But when they assigned one group to eat at their desks and another to dine with a colleague at a restaurant, they found that those who ate lunch together showed a decline in their performance on tests that measured concentration, memory and the ability catch errors and read emotions in facial expressions following lunch than before lunch. Both groups ate the same meals, but those who ate alone were only given 20 minutes to consume their food, while the paired participants were allowed one hour in the restaurant. Those who ate alone did not have as large a drop in their cognitive processing as those who ate in the restaurant.
What was responsible for the change? There were too many variables at play to determine which had the strongest influence on cognitive control — was it the companionship, or was it the restaurant environment in which other diners were present, music was played and the meal was served by wait staff, or was it the longer time to enjoy the meal?
Whichever factor was responsible, however, the group that took a restaurant lunch break came back more relaxed, say the authors, and that likely affected their cognitive sharpness. Sharing a meal outside the office with a friend appears to have a calming effect, and while it reduces intellectual skills, it could foster social harmony and teamwork, which may be an important feature of some work tasks.
But don’t feel sorry for the lone lunchers. It turns out that since they were able to maintain their cognitive skills following the meal, they might be in a better position to think creatively for projects that require more innovative solutions or approaches.
Or at least that’s what this latest study suggests. Other studies have found that simply changing your environment and getting away from your desk can help you think more clearly. As TIME reported last July, .
Never taking a break from very careful thought-work actually reduces your ability to be creative. It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace. “If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.
So maybe it’s time to re-think lunch, and consider how that midday break can affect the rest of the day’s activities. The researchers of the new study say that eating out with a friend, and potentially losing some cognitive control, may not matter much in some occupations. It’s only a disadvantage when your job calls for close self-monitoring and detailed attention to errors, such as required of technicians in a laboratory or accountants.
But if your job requires more creativity or sociability, relaxing a bit is actually advantageous.
Whatever you do, don’t skip lunch, since passing up on the meal can cause fatigue to snowball, and lead more quickly to mental burnout. If skipping lunch is the unspoken office tradition, try convincing colleagues to take a break. Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a workplace psychologist at VocationVillage.com told CNN that if you feel guilty leaving when your coworkers eat at their desk, grab a buddy and try to break the habit. “Identify some high influence co-workers and see if you can convince them to join you in something fun at midday. If key staff members start taking a lunch break, it can change workplace expectations. Even the most diehard workaholics will probably agree to a meeting where you problem-solve while walking, which would be better than working straight through at your desk,” she said.
It’s all about balance. If you can’t step outside for lunch everyday, schedule outings on days in which some collaborative brain storming or camaraderie might help to complete a project or solve a problem. And start paying more attention to lunch. It’s more than just another task to check off your to-do list.