Lunch isn’t for wimps! How lunch breaks impact well-being and engagement

“…research found that employees in a higher state of being recovered show more performance-related behaviours and experience higher well-being at work”

Do you take your lunch break every day? And when you do take your lunch break, what are the things that leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the afternoon?

New research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology explores the impact of lunch breaks on well-being and engagement. In particular, Christine Bosch, Sabine Sonnentag and Anna Sophia Pinck were interested in which kind of lunch breaks helped employees feel good in the afternoon and how this ‘feeling good’ might appear.

The research

“…lunch break recovery experiences translate into feeling less exhausted and more engagement in the afternoon”

The researchers used the Effort Recovery Model (ER) and the Conservation of Resources Theory (COR) as the basis from which to explore their ideas. The ER model suggests that for a person to recover effectively they need to not be exposed to the thing(s) depleting their energy. COR theory suggests that a person’s energy and mental agility can be restored by investing resources in things like taking time for a walk.

Four lunch time recovery experiences were explored:

  1. Psychological detachment, i.e. mentally being away from work;
  2. Relaxation i.e. experiencing less effort and exertion on body and mind;
  3. Control, i.e. the extent to which a person can choose what to do during their recovery time; and
  4. Relatedness, i.e. feeling closeness to and a belonging with other people.

The research took place in Germany and participants came from a range of occupations and sectors. Whilst 154 people volunteered to take part, following checks for validity, the final sample consisted of 109 people.

Participants were asked to complete a general questionnaire and three daily surveys which had to be completed over two consecutive work weeks with regular day shifts. The daily surveys were completed at three different points – at the start of a shift (morning), after a lunch break, and at the end of a shift (afternoon/evening).

The findings

“…when employees experienced more relaxation, control and relatedness during their lunch-break, they felt more recovered after that break, and, via this state of being recovered, less exhausted and more engaged throughout the afternoon”

  1. Relaxation, control and relatedness during lunch breaks had a positive impact on recovery following a lunch break and helped mitigate against exhaustion in the afternoon. There was no significant relationship between psychological detachment, recovery and afternoon exhaustion.
  2. The extent to which a person feels recovered following a lunch break has a positive impact on their belief in their ability to perform tasks in the afternoon. Only relaxation and relatedness had an indirect positive effect on this.
  3. Feeling recovered immediately after a lunch break helps mitigate against exhaustion and has a positive impact on level of work engagement in the afternoon.
  4. Relaxation, control and relatedness helps assist recovery and in turn, has a positive indirect effect on work engagement in the afternoon.
  5. The belief a person has in their ability to carry out tasks following a lunch break has a positive impact on level of engagement in the afternoon. Relaxation and relatedness had a positive indirect effect on this.

Implications and solutions

“When persons believe they can manage difficult tasks and situations, they will feel less troubled, and, in consequence, experience less strain”

Whilst this research is limited in that it looks at daytime shifts and lunch breaks, it still has important implications for organisations looking to increase well-being, resilience and performance. One of the most interesting findings is that a person need not completely detach (physically or mentally) from their work or workplace during lunch in order to fully recover.

More important factors seem to be the level of control a person has over what they do during their lunch break (and perhaps when they take it); along with doing things that help aid relaxation and build connections with others.

Here are some ideas to help managers and practitioners:

  1. If you are a manager, are you leading by example. Are you regularly taking your lunch break? And are you taking it away from your desk? You are a role model. If your behaviour is at odds with what you are saying then your team members may not feel comfortable taking lunch breaks if you don’t.
  2. Are there spaces in your building(s) for people to take their lunch breaks? If so, how relaxing and pleasant are these? I worked with one organisations that made two small changes to a very bland, corporate cafeteria. They added lots of plants and put up works by local artists. More people started to use the space for breaks and in a survey reported that the changes made it more conducive to having a relaxing lunch break.
  3. Why not schedule in some team lunch breaks? I know of one team who regularly do a ‘cook off’, i.e. team members bring in something they’ve cooked or baked for colleagues to eat over lunch. And another team, made up of people from many different cultures, has a ‘food from around the world’ session once a month where team members bring something in that represents their heritage.
  4. If there’s a problem with people taking lunch breaks in your team, first find out what’s getting in the way. Is it you (see the first idea) or is it something else? What needs to change for people to start regularly taking their lunch breaks? It is, after all, part of their contractual terms and conditions (or should be). One idea could be to create a bit of a competition. For example, one council team I worked with set up a treasure hunt across the city where people had to find buildings, icons and other landmarks. Whilst the original intent was for whoever won to get a gift voucher, an indirect effect was people started to treasure hunt together – pooling their resources and building relationships in turn.
  5. For those organisations who have night-time shift workers, ensuring there is a sense of community could make a difference. Night-time working can feel lonely as there, typically, will be less people around than during the day (depending on the type of organisation). Allowing people to take scheduled breaks together is one way to do this.
  6. Think about when you’re scheduling activities which require high levels of engagement. For example, you may have a team meeting which is focused on solving a particular problem. As well as sending out an invite for the team meeting, why not send out a reminder asking people to ensure they take a lunch break ahead of the session?

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