The benefits of eating alone
Marissa King is a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
More than half of Americans don’t take a lunch break. For those who do, lunch is much more likely to be spent solo, fork in hand on the internet rather than heading out for a business lunch.
But many employers try to discourage this or even have office dining room prohibited absolutely. Instead, businesses use lunch as an opportunity to ‘lunch and learn’ or play. “Roulette du midi“, a blinded office version. Employees often feel guilty about not networking over lunch, but they also feel stressed or even “dirty” if they do.
If you are someone who often finds themselves alone at lunch, rest assured. Eating at your desk might not be such a bad thing.
Choosing to spend your lunch break working or eating alone can give you more energy than having to chat with colleagues, according to research by John Trougaks at the Rottman School of Management and his colleagues. Mr. Trougaks and his team asked 103 employees how they spent their lunch each day for two weeks. They also asked co-workers how tired the respondent was at the end of the day. They found that socializing or working over lunch left employees more exhausted than just chilling out with a real lunch. Pause. But what really determined how exhausted a person was at the end of the day was the choice they had over what they did over lunch. A mandatory lunch sponsored by the company was more tiring than choosing to work over lunch. Having control what you do with that time is just as important as what you do.
This may be surprising, as you may find that socializing generally makes you happier and more invigorated. But, a few hours later, we pay the price. Around the time when the afternoon lull begins to set in, the social activities that were energizing earlier in the day start to make us feel exhausted. This is true for introverts and extroverts.
Forced socialization over lunch can be especially futile for women and minorities. One of the main goals of picnics and company parties is to generate feelings of closeness between colleagues. But employees who are racially different from their peers don’t leave lunches and happy hours feeling more connected, according to a study. Fear of being seen as different or not understood can lead minorities to attend lunches and parties out of a sense of obligation. This makes the connection even more difficult. Whenever someone attends lunch because they want to, their chances of forming a meaningful bond are about as good as if they had never left their office.
We need social connection, but we also have need to be able to detach during breaks. Being forced to socialize over lunch can lead to more stress and burnout. So the next time you find yourself having lunch at your desk, give yourself a break.
You can email Dr. King at [email protected]
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