Please stop eating lunch at your desk

The “sad desk lunch” is a staple of modern workplaces, but it’s harmful to both our productivity and our health

 
Woman eating a sandwich at her desk
(Paul Bradbury/Getty)

Forlorn sandwiches slumped by the phone, uneaten while conference calls drone on. Casseroles congealing on stacks of file folders. Keyboards spattered with the soup that overwhelmed a flimsy plastic spoon.

Such are the everyday horrors lurking at SadDeskLunch.com, a Tumblr blog dedicated to unflinchingly documenting in photos the pathos of the millions of white-collar workers who eat lunch while sitting at their desks.

It’s a widespread phenomenon: a 2012 study of North American workers by ManpowerGroup found that 39% of them ate lunch primarily at their desks. But research suggests everyone—employee, company, the culture at large—would be be better off if more of us took a real mid-day break.

Office workers are more productive after a change of pace. “We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment,” University of California workplace psychology expert Kimberley Elsbach told NPR earlier this year. “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.”

It doesn’t appear to matter whether you go to a food court, or an office cafeteria, or a proper sit-down restaurant, or sit on a bench with a sandwich; what matters is that you take a break. In fact, a 2013 study from the University of Toronto found that deciding what you’re going to do with your time away from your desk was perhaps the most important component of a proper lunch break. Spending it with colleagues—where you just end up talking about work all over again—often didn’t appear to have the same restorative powers.

Dining “al desko” doesn’t just harm your productivity, however. It’s likely harmful to your health as well. One problem is that eating while distracted causes you to eat too much. A 2013 meta-study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition summarized 24 different papers researching the relationship between distraction and overeating. On average, distracted diners ate 10% more immediately, and 25% more at later meals. Truly paying attention to what they’re eating appears to help people consume what they actually need—not just what’s around.

If nothing else convinces you, maybe this will: desks are disgusting and no food should ever go near them. A widely-cited 2007 study by the University of Arizona found the average office desktop carries 400 times more bacteria than the a toilet seat. And a 2008 study by UK consumer group Which? found about 10% of computer keyboards harboured so many germs they qualified as health hazards (one keyboard was ordered removed by the microbiologists conducting the study).

So please: for the sake of your work and your own well-being, take a half hour to step away from the keyboard and eat that sandwich outside. Or with a friend. Or while walking around the block. Just get away. The work will still be there when you get back.

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