Food for thought: Lunch matters

How your employees feel about their meal break reflects on your company culture and business performance

It’s easy to chuck the meal break as more suited for the pre-mechanisation era — when workers needed to replenish physically from their labour-intensive jobs. Today, with machines doing most of the heavy lifting, there floats the notion that less rest is needed since most of the work is done with little to no physical exertion.

 

But we also know there’s been endless research and publications that prove this wrong. Most recently, the digital diagnosis from CSIRO’s Workplace Safety Futures and Deloitte Human Capital Trends reported on how the hyper-connected workplace is affecting productivity, resulting in time away from family, as well as an increase in chronic illness among Australians.

 

For most startups, getting the business to take off is hard enough. Harder still is instilling the culture you wish to practice, since company culture evolves and may mean something different for everyone. But if you agree that culture eats strategy for breakfast, then what’s for lunch really matters.

Is a meal break required? Yes and no.

In Australia, many entitlements are insisted upon under the National Employment Standards, but a meal break is not one of them. The requirement provisioned by Modern Awards is a 30-minute unpaid meal break for employees who work more than five hours in a day. In a survey of 500 Australians, this proves prevalent among almost half of the respondents, whilst only 1 in 10 employees gets to enjoy a full hour of respite. 

Are you allowing work to eat your employees’ lunch?

When it comes to how the meal break is spent, the modus operandi for 18 percent of respondents is to eat at their desks or workstations. Sixteen percent opt for the office break room to enjoy their midday nourishment, and 1 in 10 uses this time to socialise with colleagues.

 

One in 10 employees feels the need to work through lunch because of peer pressure, they feel guilty if they don’t or they are doing so to impress the boss. In other words, the assumption of those employees who choose to work through lunch is that it’s an expected practice at their workplace.

 

So how is employee satisfaction? Look in the break room.

Anthropologist Krystal D’Costa believes that the employees’ perception of their lunch break and the office break room can be a gauge for company performance and morale. She observes when things are going well (the kitchen is full and lively) and when things aren’t looking ripper (the break room is quiet and sullen). She recognises there can be other variables on how employees choose to spend their lunch break, but ultimately, what this break looks like is significant. It shows if employees feel empowered to take the break they need and deserve, if they feel connected to their co-workers and whether their employer encourages this kind of socialisation and reprieve.

 

Working smart is not working hard

When Liv Hambrett listened to her friend voicing frustration amidst planning her move back to Australia from Hong Kong, one detail stood out more than others. The moving company the friend was dealing with told her to call back because they were on a lunch break. A global business popping the ‘closed’ sign on the door for lunch? How dare they!

 

As a fellow Australian who’s been living and working in Europe since 2010, it took awhile for Liv to get used to the laidback lifestyle, compared to home, when she first arrived. But when she honed in on some stats, she found how the most productive and wealthiest countries in the world also worked the fewest hours.

 

Failure to lunch? It’s on the employer.

The Federal Magistrates Court of Australia ruled to penalise a South Australian hotel for breaching the applicable Award’s meal breaks clause, following a Fair Work Commission investigation. The FWO acknowledged the employer’s decision to forgo its casual employees’ half-hour break entitlement because the employees themselves preferred to work straight through their shift and not stay the additional 30 minutes. But the FWO reiterated that was not a “good reason for employers to ignore the Legislative provisions”. As an employer, you are ultimately responsible for your employees’ well-being.

 

Want culture? Do lunch.

A meal is often used to celebrate and mark milestones. Nothing signifies unity and connectivity more than breaking bread together. Creating a lunch culture at work can be as simple as designating a space, allowing storage for food (and we don’t mean an esky!) or incentivising with company-wide meals when goals are met. And if it’s time to redefine your company mission or vision, perhaps you should first look at how your employees are spending their meal breaks and see if a lunch manifesto is needed. You’d be surprised at the return on investment on retention, productivity and engagement.

About the Author

Prior to becoming a global copywriter for TSheets by QuickBooks, a time tracking and scheduling solution for small businesses, Dottie Chong spent 15 years in marketing communications and content management focussed on driving engagement and brand affinity.

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