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Balancing act: Do you work through lunch or take time to recharge?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28 2014 12:49 p.m. MST

I usually eat lunch alone in my cubicle — and quickly — on workdays. A new survey from OfficeTeam shows I'm not alone in my habits. But I might have more productive afternoons if I made better use of my lunch breaks. (Shutterstock) I usually eat lunch alone in my cubicle — and quickly — on workdays. A new survey from OfficeTeam shows I'm not alone in my habits. But I might have more productive afternoons if I made better use of my lunch breaks. (Shutterstock)

When I started working as a business reporter for the Deseret News about 16 years ago, I was a bit intimidated by the office and my co-workers.

As a South Dakota transplant, I didn't know much about Utah or Salt Lake City. I was commuting to work from Ogden, so I didn't feel, at first, that I had much in common with people who lived closer to our downtown Salt Lake office.

My co-workers were kind and helpful, but I've always been slow at getting to know new people. I kept to myself quite a bit during those first few months, which meant I often ate lunch alone at my desk.

I was comfortable with this arrangement on most days, but I sometimes questioned whether I should be making more of an effort to spend my lunch break with other reporters. That's because one of the women who took care of our office plants seemed to make her rounds at about noon, and she'd comment on my lunchtime habits.

"It's not healthy to eat at your desk," she'd say, often adding a bit of good-natured ribbing. "You need to get out of your cubicle for a few minutes. Talk to other people. Take a walk. Do something that doesn't involve sitting in this office!"

I didn't take her advice right away, but I did appreciate her willingness to offer it. And over the years, I made more of an effort to eat lunch somewhere other than my desk and with someone other than myself.

Since leaving my job at the paper a couple of years ago and changing careers, I've often thought of that friendly counsel. That's because, with the exception of my frequent Friday lunches with friends, I once again tend to eat alone — and quickly — at my desk.

As I discovered last week, a new survey by staffing service OfficeTeam shows I'm not alone in my routine.

The survey of more than 400 U.S. office workers age 18 or older showed that nearly half said their typical lunch break lasts 30 minutes or less.

Looking at the numbers more closely, 9 percent of respondents said their lunch breaks were 10 minutes or less, while 5 percent said they took 10 to 15 minutes for lunch, 2 percent said they took 16 to 20 minutes and 32 percent took 21 to 30 minutes. Another 11 percent said they took 31 to 45 minutes for lunch, and 38 percent took a noontime break of an hour or more.

I was in the "10 minutes or less" category several times as a reporter, and on those days my "lunch" usually consisted of a Coke, a bag of chips and some peanut M&M's from the vending machines in the break room.

(I wonder if that could have anything to do with the weight I gained during my reporter years. ... Nah. Probably just a coincidence.)

Now that I'm older and, hopefully, a bit wiser, I try to take at least 20 minutes for lunch every day, and 30 is better. It's nice to have time to heat up some leftovers and actually chew my food.

While I sometimes catch up on the latest news or friends' Facebook posts during those 20- to 30-minute lunch breaks, I must confess that I also keep tabs on my email and occasionally continue working on a project. Although I usually eat later than my co-workers — I like the idea of having more of the workday behind me than ahead of me once lunch is done — I sometimes chat with them during my break if the opportunity presents itself.

Again, my actions are fairly typical, according to the OfficeTeam survey, which allowed for multiple responses to its question about lunch-break activities. It showed that 42 percent of respondents said they spend their midday break socializing with colleagues, while 29 percent said they work during lunch. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they spend their lunch breaks surfing the Web or social media, 25 percent catch up on personal calls or emails, 25 percent run errands, 18 percent exercise or take a walk and 3 percent read.

"Lunch breaks aren't just for eating — they provide time to clear your head and recharge," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, in a prepared statement about the survey. "Workers also can use their lunch breaks to get to know colleagues better and build their professional networks."

I never thought of using my lunch break as a networking opportunity, but it's always interesting to learn more about co-workers. It's also probably true that people like me who usually spend our breaks huddled in our cubicles could make better use of that time, improving our health and enjoying a boost to our work-life balance.

Along those lines, OfficeTeam offered five suggestions for making the most of your lunch break, including:

"Take a real break." The OfficeTeam release says you should avoid working during your lunch break so you can use your time to "truly relax and recharge."

Eat nutritious food that will give you the energy you need for the rest of your day.

"Get out," the OfficeTeam statement suggests. "Step away from your desk to clear your mind and stretch your body. Take a walk outside or exercise at the gym."

"Don't eat alone." OfficeTeam advises people to join co-workers in the break room or meet friends at a restaurant away from the workplace.

"Check items off your list," the survey recommends. "Taking care of personal tasks during lunch can mean there's less to worry about after work."

These are all good ideas, and I may try to implement some of them myself.

Meanwhile, I'd be interested in learning more about your lunchtime habits. How long is your average lunch break? What do you do during that time? And how do you think your health has been affected, positively or negatively, by your midday routine?

Drop me a line, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column. In the meantime, bon appétit!

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company