Let's do lunch: the end of al desko dining
Over half of us eat at our desks every day, but a new book encourages workers to reclaim their break time
Anyone strapped for either time or cash will already be intimately acquainted with lunching 'al desko' - scoffing down a Centra sandwich or M&S salad, eyes glued to a phone or computer screen. A seemingly smart way to beat the system, but once Laura Archer, a worker at the Museum of London, started doing the sums, she happened upon a grim truth.
"I realised that if you don't take a lunch break, based on an eight-hour working day you're effectively missing out on five hours of 'me time' a week, and 30 days of annual leave," she says.
She certainly wasn't alone: while research hints that 62pc of American office workers eat lunch in the same spot they work in all day, 31pc of British workers in a BUPA survey were also shown to be al desko diners. In the same survey, 40pc said they reply to emails and 42pc pick up their work phone during lunch. And 64pc of respondents admitted they don't even bother to stop for 20 minutes. In Ireland, we're not much better: over 50pc of us eat at our desks, according to a consumer survey.
The al desko phenomenon has even resulted in a cult website, SadDeskLunch.com, on which people post dispiriting pictures of their own workaday lunches.
The research also revealed that eating with open mouths and sloppy eating are the top two most annoying things about eating with colleagues at lunchtime. Loud chewing, eating smelly food and licking knives respectively also got on the nerves of workers.
In a culture where the typical working day can stretch long into the evening, thanks to smartphones, Archer started to realise that something had to give.
In a small moment of revelation, she understood that a simple lunch break would improve her working day dramatically. And so the blog Gone For Lunch was born.
"It happened really after a kind of sense of frustration that I didn't have enough time. I had to write a friend a letter and I'd been promising that I'd do it on the evenings or weekend, but I was always too exhausted," says Laura. "One day, I finally wrote the letter on my lunch break - it felt amazing."
The modus operandi was simple: Laura was going to make the most of her 45-minute lunch break at work.
"I made up a list of things I'd wanted to do: learning a language, spending time drawing, getting to know the area… the blog grew out of me thinking of creative things to do."
The project took on a life of its own, and pretty soon Laura found herself 'weekending' on her lunch hour.
"I was learning how to knit, going to lunchtime lectures, learning how to play chess," she says. "The one post that got the most hits on the blog was when I went out on a date.
"If you think about it, you could spend a whole evening with a person, and spend about €50 on someone you might not like, or you can meet them for 20 minutes for a quick coffee and meet them another time if you like them. For a lunchtime date you're stone cold sober, but the adrenaline gets you through."
Still, Laura admits that taking a lunchbreak felt "like a bit of a risk".
"I guess it raises the question as to whose time your lunch hour is," she notes. "I did feel like I was taking the piss a bit. It's a slightly political thing - are you having too much fun on your lunchbreak? I did think, when I went on a bike ride near the water, 'eeek, if anything happened, I'd be caught three miles from the office'." Of course, there are office cultures - often in breakneck, high-powered sectors - in which the taking of a lunchbreak, much like leaving on time, is seen as borderline transgressive, at best.
"I think some workplaces need a shift in mentality," surmises Laura. "What I found is that taking lunch made me a better employee. And it's the most popular response to the blog, 'I don't get a lunch break'. But the thing is, everyone's idle at their desk for at least 30 minutes a day. If you thought of it more as your time, you'd think of it differently."
Deskbound workers have managed to work social media and non-work sites into their working day, and perhaps this accounts for a sense that taking a lunchbreak is a liberty too far.
"Yes, I've definitely done that myself, been on Facebook for half an hour and can't justify a lunch break," admits Laura. "But rather than feeling you owe that time back to your employer, remember that in picking your phone up outside office hours, you're working then too."
Research by Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University suggests that staring into your salad does little for your waistline. In one study of 142 Chicago office workers, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Wansink found that desktop dining simply led to weight gain. "Although office workers believe they are being heroically dedicated or efficient by eating at their desk (it has) a price in pounds and in enjoyment," he wrote.
Yet ditching the ready meals and soggy sandwiches also meant that Laura's in-office eating habits changed: "Strangely, once I got outside and started walking, my appetite would go away," she says. "I ate less because my mind was engaged in other things. I associate the office with the biscuit tin anyway."
Laura's year of mindful lunching, and the resultant blog, has been such a hit that she has even written a book about how to make the most out of a lunch hour. And it's a small shift that she thinks could benefit many others.
"I started dividing my life into weekends and weekdays, and the weekends were fun and the weekdays were grey and boring," she explains.
"Now, the weekdays and weekends blend into one," she enthuses. "I never get that Sunday evening blues feeling anymore."
Gone For Lunch: 52 Things To Do On Your Lunch Break by Laura Archer is out now (Quadrille, €11.99)