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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is the lunch hour becoming outdated?

Are you eating at your desk today? Odds are you answered yes.

Over the last decade, fueled by salary cuts and job insecurity, lunch hour has evolved. It’s shorter, more purposeful and more often spent in the office. It’s the source of lawsuits, a point of contention among generations, and a contributor to the obesity epidemic.

The shift in the midday ritual has some businesses repurposing their lunchrooms and others reshaping their policies. It has even launched a national movement called Take Back Your Lunch Hour.

For some, the move toward brown-bagging began with an effort to cut costs and show commitment. But even as the economy rebounds and summer approaches, habits aren’t changing.

For most managers, eating at your desk has become the new status symbol of efficiency.

“It shows you’re trying to be more productive, more committed,” says Diana Metcalf, major gifts officer with Junior Achievement of South Florida. “With all the balls we are juggling, it’s just easier to eat at your desk.”

Catherine Haga, president of Junior Achievement of Greater Miami, says she used to go out to lunch regularly. Not anymore. “With so many time demands, I’d rather take 20 minutes to pound out a memo or read emails and eat at the same time.” Haga says she’s even more likely to eat at her desk in summer. “To take a vacation, I’m going to have to work twice as hard before and after to do what needs to be done.”

That’s not what Emily Pines and Inna Kurbatsky want to hear.

They are gearing up to gain new momentum for Take Back Your Lunch, a campaign launched last June by The Energy Project. It encourages workers to schedule lunch outside the office at least one day a week during summer. They have proposed Wednesdays. Their next move is to target companies.

“It’s not healthy to sit at your desk from the time you get into the office to the time you leave. It can lead to burnout and attrition,” Kurbatsky says.

Their advice: “We want you to do anything that helps you relax or recharge – walk, take a yoga class, have a picnic lunch in the park,” Pines says. “The main thing is that you walk away from desk, get out of the office environment and disengage from work.”

Rebecca Portnoy is researching the value of social interaction at lunch. Portnoy, assistant professor of management at the Washington State University College of Business, is looking at what happens when workers share mealtime with co-workers. In a university setting, she studied custodians who share their meal break on a regular basis, and faculty, who eat at their desks. “White-collar workers, such as the faculty, recognize the positive of lunch away from their desks but view it as something that disrupts their day,” Portnoy says. The custodians, she says, developed a sense of family, trust and a willingness to help each other out, particularly when work life conflicts arise.

Among hourly workers, lunch is mandated in most states. Yet with the push for productivity, employers are being slapped with lawsuits costing them millions of dollars by workers who say they are being compelled to work through meal breaks. Concerned, some companies such as Xonex, a corporate relocation firm, bar employees from working through meal breaks or eating at their desks.

Desk dining is not forbidden but it also isn’t encouraged by CPA Andrew Taubman, managing partner of Friedman, Cohen, Taubman & Co. in Plantation. Taubman wants his employees eating in the company lunch room, rather than their desks. He doesn’t like the idea that food could spill on financial records, work product or the computer.

Taubman spends his lunch hour eating out. Like most people today, he uses it purposefully. “I make lunch my marketing time. I make it a point to meet for lunch with potential or existing clients.”

Mallarie Lima, a 27-year old CPA at Taubman’s firm, uses her lunch break to run errands, exercise or take a power nap, but occasionally she eats at her desk

Lima says the example set for the younger generation is lunch is a time to “get more things done,” adding, “Sometimes I burn out by end of day if haven’t left the office.”

Clearly, new lunch habits have myriad health effects. A sweeping review of shifts in the labor force since 1960 suggests a sizable portion of the national weight gain can be explained by declining physical activity during the workday.

A new CareerBuilder survey found the typical lunch break is 20 to 40 minutes. It also found 32 percent of workers take less than a half-hour for lunch, 18 percent typically don’t leave their desks during their lunch break and eat in their workspace five days a week, while 10 percent never take a lunch break.

Executive coach Regina Barr of Red Ladder believes the solo work lunch is a bad career move, particularly for women. Lunch is a time to network and develop critical relationships internally and externally, she says.

“Women often have childcare or other family obligations and don’t have morning or evenings to network. Their only time to build social capital is during lunch hour,” she points out.

Image is a concern, too, Barr says. “What is eating at your desk saying about you professionally?” Oftentimes when a guy eats at his desk, it’s seen as a power lunch, she notes. “People think he must be doing a deal.” However, when a woman eats at her desk there’s a different perception. “People think she’s frazzled and can’t get her work done.”

Warns Barr: “Be careful about what image you’re giving off.”