How did you (or do you plan to) spend today’s lunch break? Did you chat with colleagues? Did you work through lunch hours to complete an important job? Or did you simply kick back and relax?
When we think of what makes work stressful, fun, or productive, lunch breaks are probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, lunch breaks are a central part of most employees’ working days. And, potentially, such breaks can play an important role, enabling employees to recover from stressful work experiences, to recharge their batteries, and to gain new energy.
Importantly, however, not all lunch breaks are the same. Depending on how employees spend this time, the effects of a lunch break for their well-being and productivity can dramatically differ. Socializing with colleagues during lunch, working through, or simply relaxing – recent research by John Trougakos and his colleagues has shown that these choices can have crucial consequences.
One result of this study is certainly not unexpected: Employees’ fatigue at the end of the day is substantially higher when they just continue with their work during lunch hours. So, is any break better than none? Not quite: The study further shows that other lunch activities can easily backfire as well. Socializing and talking with colleagues, in particular, may increase one’s stress level in many situations! The only type of lunch activity with clear-cut benefits for stress reduction is to simply relax and do something for fun and leisure.
But here’s the catch: Companies and managers can make a huge contribution to their employees’ effective recovery during lunch breaks. The key is what Trougakos and his colleagues call lunch break autonomy. As these scholars note, “the extent to which employees can determine how they utilize their lunch breaks may be just as important as what employees do during their lunch.” Work or social lunch activities, for example, are particularly stressful if an employee feels obliged to do so. If an employee has freely chosen for such activities, in contrast, their detrimental consequences disappear.
Hence, there is a critical message for supervisors and managers: Nowadays, we often talk of autonomy and empowerment in the workplace. Such autonomy should not remain limited to actual work activities, however, but should extend toward employees’ break times as well. Trougakos and his colleagues advise, for example, that “managers should be mindful to avoid pressuring employees to work during their breaks.” Similarly, obligatory social activities during lunch hours (e.g., a fixed department lunch) can only be effective if employees are fully in favor of such activities. Lunch breaks can be a key element of effective stress management and recovery –and it is employees’ and managers’ joint responsibility to make such breaks count and fully use their potential.
(This post is based on: Trougakos, J. P., Hideg, I., Cheng, B. H., & Beal, D. J. (2013). Lunch breaks uncovered: The role of autonomy as a moderator of recovery during lunch. Academy of Management Journal, in press.)