When was the last time you took a real lunch break? You know, one where you got up from your desk (even your home desk) and sat somewhere else; where you weren't using your left hand to eat your sandwich and your right hand on the mouse to finish up that spreadsheet; where you actually savored every bite of your food, instead of shoving forkfuls of salad into your mouth while staring at a computer screen.
Only about 1 in 5 North American workers takes a real lunch break, research shows. And while doing so may seem like a luxury in today's work environment, nutrition and workplace productivity experts say it's actually more of a necessity, particularly when it comes to your health and career performance. Here's why.
1. You can replenish your stores of mental energy.
No one has an infinite amount of mental energy. The longer you go without taking a break, "the more depleted our energy stores get over time, and the more and more effortful each activity becomes," says John Trougakos, Ph.D., associate professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto Scarborough. But by taking a break from work, you replenish those stores.
2. You can use it as an opportunity to bond with friendly co-workers -- or recharge in solitude.
It all depends on if you're an extrovert (who is energized from social situations and interactions) or an introvert (who may find social interactions draining, preferring to recharge solo), says psychologist and career coach Janet Scarborough Civitelli, Ph.D. "For some extroverts, talking during lunch is incredibly energizing," Scarborough Civitelli says. "But for some introverts, it may be less so — people have to understand about themselves what energizes them and what drains them even more."
3. You might help to prevent burnout down the road.
The choices you make in the present can affect how you feel later on -- and yes, that's even true for something as trivial-seeming as taking a lunch break. "People can power through for short periods of time in ways that aren't healthy in the long-term," Scarborough Civitelli says. "So you may say, 'Oh, no one here takes a lunch break and we're all doing fine,' and sure, you may all seem relatively fine for now. But then it will catch up with you, and that's when you see things like stress-related illness, burnout and career dissatisfaction."
4. It's an opportunity to enjoy something.
Eat your favorite sandwich. Take a stroll through the park. Do something that makes you happy with your free time midday. Why this helps you at work: Positive emotions are a vital factor in creativity, Trougakos says. "So when we have positive experiences and a positive mood, we are more creative. We make more connections between trains of thought and different domains that we might not normally connect."
5. It's also an opportunity to move.
If you're a desk jockey, all that sitting and staring at a computer screen is, frankly, not great for you. "The eye strain, back strain--all of that can take a toll on your body," Trougakos says. "So getting up and stepping away from your workstation is an important component to having an effective lunch break." Research has shown that taking a 30-minute walk during your lunch break is linked with improved moods and even greater enthusiasm come afternoon.
(Real Simple magazine provides smart, realistic solutions to everyday challenges. Online at www.realsimple.com.)
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