The end of the Lunch Hour

Courtesy NPR/WPUR Boston, Here & Now, March 3, 2015

What ever happened to the lunch hour – actually getting out of the office for some air and a meal?

Fewer American workers are taking time for lunch. Studies show that only one in five people take a break and leave their desks to eat. Most workers are simply eating at their desks.

But research has also found that the longer you stay at work, the more important it is to get outside of the office, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson discusses this with Professor Kimberly Elsbach of UC Davis Graduate School of Management and Yen Ha, co-host of the Lunch Studio blog.

Kim Elsbach

You don’t actually need to go eat, YOU JUST NEED TO GET OUT.

Interview Highlights: Professor Kimberly Elsbach

On why the lunch hour is disappearing

“The work day runs now from much earlier in the morning to late at night, and it’s also not a standard 9 to 5, so for people, when you eat or when you take a break to get some sustenance, is not going to be the same. Also, there’s just this demand to be forever available, so people are reluctant to leave their desk in case they miss something, and so people are eating at their desk, if they’re eating at all, and are just there for longer periods of time.”

“People sort of slowly chip away at what they think is a normal day and a normal break, and interestingly, the higher up you are, the more that you’re in a managerial position, the less likely you are to take a break at all.”

“Set up an online form where you say, okay these are the different activities we’re doing.”

On lunch breaks and labor laws

“I think that’s one of the reasons why people who are in more staff or line jobs, that are unionized or regulated by labor rules, are the people who are left taking lunch – because it’s mandated – but for white collar workers and managers it’s not, and so they’re the group who are least likely to take lunch.”

On why we need to take lunch breaks

“We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment, and especially when they expose themselves to a nature-like environment, to a natural environment, so staying inside, in the same location, is really detrimental to creative thinking. It’s also detrimental to doing that rumination that’s needed for ideas to percolate and gestate and allow a person to arrive at an ‘aha’ moment… You don’t actually need to go eat, you just need to get out.”

On how to make sure you take a break

“It’s tough. One of the things I think helps is do what Yen has been doing, and creating a community around it. So, you can set up an online form where you say, okay these are the different activities we’re doing. There’s one group that’s going to meet and eat sack lunch outside, there’s another group that’s gonna go for a walk around the local environment, there’s another group that’s gonna go to a favorite restaurant.”


Media stories about Professor Kim Elsbach’s research on getting out from your desk at lunch can give your creative juices a boost

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One Response to “The End of the Lunch Hour”

  1. Dark Penguin

    At my last job, lunch breaks fell victim to daily status meetings and, ultimately, geography and housing prices. Parents of young children generally lived way out in the burbs and preferred extremely early schedules so as to avoid some traffic. I had one co-worker who worked from 5am to 2pm. I myself had to work a late schedule–9 – 6 because I was the only one available in the later afternoon.

    So there was a meeting around noon, every day.


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