If you spend every workday eating a sad-looking salad at your desk while still staring at your screen, you're not alone -- along with the death of the 9-to-5 job, the lunch break has vanished from many employees' work schedules. According to a 2011 survey by human resources consulting firm Right Management, only one in three American workers take a lunch break -- leaving 65 percent of employees either eat at their desks or not eat at all.
But your lunch habits can make a big difference in your work life, according to a German study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin explored the psychological consequences of meal situations, looking at how lunchtime eating circumstances affected thinking and emotional states.
Of the 32 female test participants, half ate alone in an office and half went out for a leisurely sit-down meal with others. The meals were eaten in completely different contexts: The lunch consumed in the bland office environment was eaten alone in a short period of time, whereas at the restaurant, subjects were given time to select and consume the meal in the company of others. The restaurant meal also concluded with a short walk back to the lab.
After the meals, researchers measured semantic memory, cognitive control and error processing, and processing of emotional facial expressions, and subjects filled out a questionnaire ranking their mood. The researchers found that people who enjoyed the restaurant meal reported increased feelings of relaxation, and also reduced cognitive control, allowing the subjects to better process facial expressions -- potentially increasing their creativity and connection to others.
“Reduced cognitive control is a disadvantage when close self-monitoring of performance and detailed attention to errors is required, such as in numerical processing," the researchers concluded. "In other situations, an attenuation of cognitive control may be advantageous, such as when social harmony or creativity is desired.”
But leaving your desk for lunch isn't just a relaxing way to break up the day. Although a long off-site lunch might seem like a productivity-killer, it could actually help you get more done, Fast Company reported.
“You don’t have time to skip your lunch break,” Tom Rath, author of the forthcoming book :Eat, Move, Sleep," told Fast Company. “What you do at lunch can either make or break the rest of the day.”
Time for relaxation has been linked with heightened productivity and can help ward off stress and burnout at work. And if you needed any more reason to go grab a bite with your coworkers, having strong relationships at work has also been linked with increased productivity and higher levels of job satisfaction and engagement.