It’s lunch time! What are your employees eating? If they’re like many American workers, it may not be pretty. You only need to peruse saddesklunch.com for a few minutes to get a taste of the unsavory, nutritionally-challenged meals routinely eaten at desks across the country. Warning: Photos of real-life bagged lunches, ranging from hard candy and a latte to pretzels on a hot dog bun; all of which may just kill your appetite.
Unfortunately, sad desk lunches are a reality for far too many professionals. In a survey conducted by Right Management, 42 percent of employees said they seldom or never eat lunch, and only 19 percent said they leave their desks for a daily lunch break. That’s bad news, because taking a midday pause to eat fuels employees’ creativity and innovation and can make a difference to an employee’s livelihood and a company’s bottom line.
The Cost of Sad Desk Lunches
Americans are known for hurrying through lunch in an effort to save time. In the process, however, we may harm our health and productivity.
Missing a meal causes blood-sugar levels to tank, which makes it difficult to focus on tasks. Poor nutrition is costly to both employees and companies. A study done by the Society for Human Resources Management estimates 76 percent of U.S. workers eat insufficient levels of fruits and vegetables, and 63 percent are overweight or obese. According to a 2011 analysis, employees’ unhealthy behaviors, including poor nutrition, cost U.S. employers an average of $670 per employee per year in healthcare expenses. Moreover, studies suggest obese workers are twice as likely to miss work as fit employees.
Sad desk lunches may make employees sick for reasons unrelated to nutrition. Microbiologist Charles Gerba calls desks "bacteria cafeterias" because they’re rarely cleaned. Only 36 percent of workers in one survey cleaned their desks at least once a week. To make things worse, desktops harbor 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than a toilet seat, according to a study on workplace germs.
Company Food Deserts
It may be tempting to blame employees for the sad state of lunchtime in America. But work can be a hindrance to good nutrition according to research by Christopher Wanjek, author of Food at Work: Workplace Solutions for Malnutrition, Obesity, and Chronic Disease. “Canteens, if they exist, routinely offer an unhealthy and unvaried selection. Vending machines are regularly stocked with unhealthy snacks. Local restaurants can be expensive or in short supply,” he writes.
Case in point: Only 18% of U.S. companies have cafeterias, and only 14% offer subsidized meals on site. Furthermore, taking a break is frowned upon in many companies. In one survey, about half of workers said they didn’t feel like they could get up for a break.
Create a Lunch Culture
Employers should encourage employees to get the refueling and renewing benefits of lunch by providing a comfortable place to eat, and making nutritious food options available and affordable. Some companies are turning to managed catering to help nourish their employees. It’s less expensive than providing a cafeteria, and it offers many of the same benefits—healthy, balanced meals eaten away from the desk.
Carbohydrates, protein, and fats fuel cognitive performance in different ways, so a balanced meal can optimize workers’ afternoon job performance. Research suggests a workplace catering initiative encourages employees to make healthier food choices. A catered meal may also inspire employees to leave their desks for a change in setting, which rejuvenates the mind and boosts creativity, according to research by Kimberly Elsbach at the University of California-Davis. Moreover, workers who socialize with each other over lunch may collaborate better on the job, according to a Cornell study of firefighters.
Employer-provided meals show employees the company cares about their well-being, which may inspire higher employee engagement and loyalty. In one survey, free lunch or snacks ranked as the sixth most important benefit that drives employee satisfaction, after health insurance; vacation and PTO; pensions, 401(k)s, and other retirement plans; maternity and paternity leave; and stock options.
Whether or not your company opts to provide or subsidize employees’ lunches, it’s worth examining your lunchtime culture. If employees skip lunch or eat sad desk lunches, it could cost your company more than you think.