Two New York construction workers stop for lunch high above the city, circa 1950.
Photograph by Ben McCall — FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesImages
By Anne Fisher
September 17, 2015

What are you doing for lunch? If you’re gulping down a quick meal alone at your desk, as well over half of white-collar workers regularly do, you might want to make other plans—especially if you’re hoping top talent will stick around.

A recent white paper from consulting firm The Energy Project and the Harvard Business Review looked at the daily habits of about 20,000 U.S. managers and their teams. The researchers found that white-collar employees who step away from their desks a few times during the workday, especially at lunchtime, report feeling 40% more engaged in their work and 40% more creative than people who spend their lunch hours grinding away. They’re also 81% more likely to say they plan to stay with their current employer.

Yet most managers, it seems, have not caught on. Only about one in five (21%) bosses “model sustainable behavior,” including taking real breaks at midday, the study says. Even fewer leaders (17%) encourage the people who work for them to do so.

 

It turns out that companies like Google that offer free lunch to all are on to something. It’s not really about the food, so much as the communal setting, where employees get a chance to meet, talk, and maybe even come up with some new ideas, or just chill for a while.

Too many leaders elsewhere “have bought into the belief that the best way to keep up is to be working all the time,” observes Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, which counts Google, Apple, and the Cleveland Clinic among its clients. “At the most practical level, leaving your desk for lunch is an opportunity to let go of whatever stresses you’ve accumulated during the morning, so you return to work feeling more energized and focused in the afternoon.”

A real lunch break can also help stave off burnout. “With the increased demands created by technology and a more complex global economy, even the most committed employees often feel they are running on empty,” Schwartz says. “Taking back your lunch is the first step in taking back your life.”

Thinking of heading out for a bite? Why not ask someone from the office to join you? Maybe somebody from the finance department: When staffing firm Accountemps polled 2,500 accounting and finance professionals last month, asking how they spent their lunch hours, one-third (33%) said they run errands, while 28% catch up on email. About half (49%) said they usually eat alone at their desks—but apparently only because no one has made them a better offer. Almost as many (46%) said they’d rather “enjoy a meal with coworkers.”

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