To the surprise of the average workaholic American, the French government legally forbade employees from eating lunch at their desks for years. But just recently, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, France’s Labor Ministry changed its labor code to allow folks to consume their midday meals at their work stations. Specifically, employees found eating lunch at their desks will no longer be at risk of incurring a fine.
The purpose of the temporarily defunct law had always been to spur French workers to actually take a break from their routines. According to many studies, that pause is just as necessary to being productive as concentrating on a computer screen for an extended length of time.
But the benefits of eating away from your desk go beyond giving you a much-deserved break. What we eat and how we eat it has psychological and nutritional implications ― even more so during these unprecedented times. Let’s unpack why it’s beneficial to step away from your desk for meals, especially during the pandemic.
If you’re working from home right now, be aware of your proximity to food
Given the average American’s work-from-home setup, any sort of “work area” qualifies as a desk, whether it’s a dining table, a bed, a couch or an actual desk.
“I actually have not gotten feedback from people [at home] saying they are more inclined to eat at their desks,” clinical psychologist Sam Von Reiche told HuffPost. “I’ve found that people who are working at home take more advantage of the fact that they can go down and make something to eat in the kitchen.”
That being said, Von Reiche notes that the proximity to the kitchen most directly leads to the concept of “unconscious eating,” which we should all try to avoid. The psychologist’s sentiments echo ones expressed by nutritionists and health experts.
“Unconscious eating is eating without giving much thought to the physiological cues that we may pay attention to when we are sitting at the dinner table and having a meal,” said Leanne Redman, the associate executive director for scientific education at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “We are not paying attention to cues about satiety. We are more likely to eat more quickly and not feeling full.”
During the pandemic, the problem is compounded. In a traditional office, employees are usually limited in terms of the foods they can eat, depending on what’s readily available to them. “In the COVID-19 era, we’ve had challenges with going out and buying food, so we tend to stockpile more at home and buy more foods in bulk,” Redman said. “Which means that as we’re sitting down, the portions of the foods that are available to us ― particularly snack food, which is our go-to when mindlessly eating ― are going to be much larger portions than before.”
According to Brooke Scheller, a doctor of clinical nutrition and a certified nutrition specialist, easier access to a wider range of foods also translates to higher calorie consumption. “We are sitting in the same place so we might be snacking more because we are closer to our kitchens,” she said.
Why you should take a mindful pause to eat away from your desk, especially during the pandemic
“It might seem like a good idea to sit at your desk and get through your emails during lunch,” Scheller said. “But by stepping away and taking time to give yourself a bit of a break, you’re going to improve your productivity later on. Ideally, 30 minutes to an hour is a good time to step away. We tend to really burn out when we don’t give ourselves those forced pauses.”
Von Reiche echoes those sentiments. “Taking a break to recharge your batteries and [give your] brain an opportunity to reboot … will allow you to pay better attention and become more creative later on,” she said.
Scheller specifically mentions the stress hormone cortisol, which may already be elevated during stressful times like the coronavirus pandemic. According to many studies, prolonged exposure to the blue light emanating from all sorts of screens ― from computers to tablets to phones ― drastically increases the stress hormone’s levels in our body. Stepping away from your work station will therefore prevent another trigger that’ll raise your stress levels.
The ability to socialize during lunch shouldn’t be overlooked, either. In regular times, a break would give employees the ability to socialize, a psychological necessity for all humans. Needless to say, our need to actually see and interact with other people ― at a safe distance and with a mask on, of course ― has been compounded during these unprecedented times.
“I don’t think I need to explain why we need a break now more than ever,” Von Reiche said. “We’ve been deprived of [socialization] for so long and people who say, ‘I’ll browse the internet or go on social media’ as a way to socialize … well, it’s absolutely not the same. People still report experiencing isolation and depression while at home.”
Are there any positives to just sitting at your desk and enjoying a salad and some peace and quiet? “From the vantage point of social distancing, obviously eating at your desk will prevent you from getting too close to somebody else,” Von Reiche said. “However, I feel as though you can accomplish the same feat by going outside and sitting on a park bench and eating your lunch while enjoying some fresh air and sunlight.”
Steps you can take to improve your state of well-being
First off: Actually schedule a lunch break. Whether for 30 minutes or an hour, guaranteeing yourself a break from your workspace by blocking out some time on your calendar is a great first step. “It’s going to help you make more mindful choices at that time of eating,” Redman said.
If you can’t get out of your home, worry not! Just moving away from the space you spent all morning in might help. “Change your environment,” Scheller said. “If you can, sit in a different area than your normal working one. If you’ve got a dining table or something to sit at that creates more of a ‘meal’ feeling, embrace it.”
In Von Reiche’s words, we should “set the stage for lunch.” Whether setting up a table or putting on some music, it’s important to consume a meal in an environment that feels different from a work situation, even if both are taking place in your home.
Taking away the temptation to grab something from your fridge and quickly eat it at your desk will also help. “Leave food out of sight!” Redman suggests. “We should be removing the go-to items from the kitchen counter and putting them deep into the pantry. In general, when we go to the fridge, we don’t want the foods that we are most likely to snack on to be front and center.”
Even more specifically, Redman recommends we start behaving as if we’re actually going to work. “We should package meals like we would have done if we were leaving our house for our workplace. We should plan what our lunch is going to be and what we are going to have on our coffee break like we would if we were going to the office.”
If you’re finding it hard to follow these guidelines, don’t despair. Referring to a survey of 7,754 people led by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in April 2020, Redman mentions that ― given the anxiety and panic related to the pandemic’s fallout ― 30% of respondents from around the world reported an increase in their inability to get rid of distractions that lead to the sort of unconscious and psychologically disruptive eating we’ve been discussing. Clearly, you’re not alone.
Did the French have it right when they banned eating at your desk?
“Some Mediterranean countries have a siesta after lunch,” Redman said. “It’s an interesting concept.” By placing an importance on breaks, Europeans have maximized their productive hours.
Scheller agrees that breaks can help with productivity. “We work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and often think that we can only enjoy ourselves when it’s the weekend or we’re taking a vacation,” she said, suggesting that a pre-scheduled break on a workday might provide just as much needed respite as an out-of-town trip. “There is a lot of beauty in recognizing that we can take time throughout our week to step away from our desks and find indulgence.”
Perhaps most sadly, our approach to lunch breaks ends up affecting other aspects of life, as well. “The U.S. work culture is accused of endorsing workaholism and that is directly related to the lower levels of recorded life satisfaction here versus Europe,” Von Reiche said. “We absolutely have several pages to rip out of the European book, whether it be the amount of vacations or breaks we take.” The negative effects of Americans’ “focus on productivity over well-being” are apparent every day, she added.