Once upon a time, lunch was a long, lazy affair that involved not only leaving the office for several hours but occasionally not bothering to actually return.
Restaurants did a roaring trade; food – and drink – were consumed in a leisurely manner and, if you really felt you had to stay close to work, at least there was usually a decent, subsidised staff canteen, where workers were encouraged to restore depleted energy reserves for the afternoon shift.
Today that might sound like some kind of fairy story idyll. And, indeed, it wasn’t long before the baddie appeared in the form of Wall Street anti-hero Gordon Gekko to insist that lunch was for wimps.
Suddenly, no-one had a decent lunch break again . . .
Certainly according to new research, a proper midday break is a faded memory for more than half of Edinburgh workers, who chomp through a fairly sad lunch while trapped at their desk.
Some 49 per cent take just 30 minutes of their allocated lunch break, most of which is spent tinkering on social media or sorting out online banking while trying to cram an uninspired packed lunch down their throat.
All of which, according to Scots food psychologist Dr Christy Fergusson, who analysed the results of the UK wide survey for phone firm O2, creates a recipe for a fairly unproductive afternoon, jaded brain cells, affects our physical health and even puts us in danger of piling on the pounds.
“Instead of having a proper lunch, workers are using the time to fill up on other things on their ‘to do’ list,” she warns. “They’re eating while multi-tasking and there’s a danger this could lead to overeating.
“Not concentrating on what you’re eating makes it easier to over-consume. You’re distracted and not thinking about quantity, so you forget what you’ve actually had.”
According to the O2 survey, 15.8 million workers across the United Kingdom fail to take a full lunch break, with 60 per cent claiming they are simply too busy to eat and 16 per cent putting it down to feeling “guilty” about leaving their desk.
Those who managed a break usually remained in the office, with almost a quarter using the time out to scroll through their e-mails, while others waded through personal admin, including internet banking, phone calls, organising appointments, online shopping and paying bills.
Yet while the lunch break seems to be a “perk” of the past, around 30 per cent of workers acknowledge that they get more done in the afternoon if they have a spell away from the desk.
The impact, according to Dr Fergusson, goes further than just leaving half the city’s workforce feeling like they never leave their desk. “Lunchbreak is time to refuel but it should also be about giving us some breathing space from work,” she adds. “Another aspect is if we are stressed or distracted, we can struggle to produce the digestive juices we need to break down the food we consume.
“We should aim to eat when we’re relaxed and not at our desks, stressed and with all the demands that work puts on us.
“Taking a break could actually make us more productive in the afternoon because we’re more likely to focus and have a clear idea of what we need to achieve.”
Similar research into workplace habits in America and Australia has also found that the age of the long, leisurely lunch break is a thing of the past. And even in Spain, home of the three-hour siesta, workers are set to lose their long breaks as the parliament there tries to “modernise” the working day by scraping the lingering midday timeout.
Yet that runs contrary to stark health warnings that suggest too much time sitting at our desks increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
One recent US study suggested sitting for more than four hours a day puts workers at greater risk of chronic illnesses and those sitting for at least six hours were significantly more likely to have diabetes.
It’s prompted some to suggest sitting down all day is the “new smoking”.
According to Dr Fergusson, just getting up and going for a post-lunch stroll offers significant benefits to our mental and physical wellbeing.
“At the end of the day, we would be up in arms if schools suddenly announced that our children had to eat lunch at their desk, we’d see it as unacceptable and we’d be horrified,” she points out.
“We know it’s not healthy, so we shouldn’t do it ourselves.”
BE CREATIVE WITH YOUR LUNCHTIME CHALLENGE
WE’ RE tied to the desk at lunchtime, plus money worries mean our food choices can leave us feeling unsatisfied, the research claims.
The lunchtime survey – which ties in with a new £1 Monday lunch offer for O2 Priority Customers at selected outlets – suggests 39 per cent choose lunch based on its price, while a quarter keeps costs down by taking a packed lunch from home.
According to chef Neil Forbes, of New Town restaurant Cafe St Honore, forward planning and imagination could help not only drag us away from the computer for vital break time, but make lunch a far more enjoyable experience.
“The recession has seen the number of people eating out at lunchtime dropping a bit,” he agrees. “But people don’t have to sit at their desk eating a boring filled roll.
“Most workplaces will have a microwave or a hob to heat up the potatoes or veg leftovers from dinner the night before.
“It could become a workplace challenge to see who can make the best lunch – and get them away from their desks for a bit.”
Ingredients prepped the night before could become frittata or omelette using an office microwave, he says.
“If there’s a toastie machine, take in a baguette, drizzle with cold pressed rapeseed oil, rub it with some garlic and throw in some Clyde Valley tomatoes and red onion for the perfect bruschetta,” he adds.
“A packed lunch doesn’t have to be the same boring thing every day. Something like escabeche is lovely: sliced carrots, onions, crushed coriander and saffron with oily fish like mackerel, red mullet or sardines submerged in cold pressed rape seed oil, seasoned and left to ‘cook’, is a wonderful lunch dish. You can eat it either hot or cold with some crusty bread.”
A tastier option in the lunchbox could tempt workers to venture to a more pleasant setting to eat it, rather than in front of their computer, he adds.
“Tarts, flans and quiches are all easy to make and taste delicious, and if you finish it off by going outside for a walk, it’s even better.”
n For more details about the O2 Priority £1 lunch deal, go to www.o2priority.co.uk.