Noon arrives and your stomach starts to grumble. It’s halfway through the work day, and probably the perfect time to take a 30-minute grub break to carry you over the finish line.
That’s the dream scenario – one that unfortunately isn’t happening for most workers. Instead, they’re either eating lunch while working, or skipping it entirely. In fact, workers today are 40% more likely to skip lunch than they were just one year ago and nearly half of the workforce (48%) skip lunch at least once a week, according to corporate. catering company ezCater’s annual lunch report, which surveyed over 5,000 workers across the U.S. from all types of workplaces to better understand their relationship with food at work.
“There’s this disparity between how much employees understand the importance of a lunch break and how many of them actually take a lunch break,” said Diane Swint, chief revenue officer at ezCater. “Employees need to pay attention.”
Gen Z the most likely to skip lunch out of fear
Generation Z workers have become associated with terms and trends like “bare minimum Mondays” and “quiet quitting.” Like all sweeping generalizations this has led to an oversimplified view of how an entire generation works: that they all slack off at work. However, this report found that the lunch crunch is strongest for Gen Z, in part because this cohort is worried about such stereotypes. They’re twice as likely to worry that their bosses will judge them for taking a lunch break. That leads to them being the most likely to neglect meals at work, with 70% saying they skip lunch once a week.
Another aspect of it is etiquette, especially when it comes to days you’re working remotely. If you don’t have time to take a full lunch break, is it OK to eat during a meeting?
One in 5 workers surveyed feel that they have too many meetings to take a lunch break, which may contribute to the trend of “meeting and eating” on video calls. Despite workers feeling that eating on an external (83%) or internal (74%) video call is bad etiquette, 3 in 10 workers do it anyway.
“If you have a meeting and lunch is provided, no one will think that it’s rude that you’re munching on your salad in the conference room,” said Swint. “But somehow, when you’re up close and personal on a Zoom call, it becomes offensive. I think that’s so fascinating.”
Are we too busy for lunch?
In other cases, people do try to hold themselves accountable and block off time on their calendar to eat lunch. However, it doesn’t always work. While 29% of office workers protect their lunch break by blocking time on their calendar for it, 62% use that time for another purpose.
Does that mean we are all too busy to take a break? While in the short term skipping lunch might feel like you’re getting more work done and being productive, it can ultimately lead to burnout when it’s done consistently. But lunch breaks actually improve job performance and reduce burnout, ezCater’s data shows.
“As folks burn out on the job, their performance goes down, then they quit, then you have to replace them,” said Swint. “That’s the big impact of providing an opportunity to have lunch together. It decreases that burnout, which then decreases your talent acquisition costs. Companies often overlook that very simple piece of thinking about giving lunch a few times a week. The ROI is pretty clear if you can increase retention, especially with your best employees.”
And some leaders agree it’s best they encourage the break for their employees’ own sanity.
“Taking a lunch break is very important, both for nutrition and the way this affects energy levels and concentration, but also as a more general mental health break, which in turn is a net positive on productivity,” said Steve O’Hear, co-founder and CEO of O’Hear & Co, a London-based strategic communications advisory for tech startups. “It’s even better if coupled with some fresh air or at least a change of scenery – getting away from the desk often sparks a breakthrough in a problem I’m trying to solve, and a lunch break means finding time away from the laptop isn’t left to serendipity.”
Philipp Nastaly, CEO and co-founder of CHAPTR, which builds community-led media ventures, seconds this. “The trend of more and more workers skipping lunch signals a concerning shift in work-life balance. We’ve seen how fully remote work blurs personal and professional boundaries, leading to this ‘always-on’ culture. While dedication is valuable, it shouldn’t compromise well-being,” he said.
But even knowing all of this, workers find it hard to take a 30-minute lunch break because they prefer to keep working so they can get everything done in the day. According to ezCater, 23% of people skip lunch because they want to finish their work as soon as possible.
Kodie Dower, a senior manager of marketing communications at data science platform Anaconda, said that he’s had an inconsistent lunch time since he’s worked from home. “At first, it was mostly because I was no longer in the same time zone as a lot of my coworkers, so there wasn’t a single time that all or most people went out,” said Dower. “This social ritual of going out mid-day for lunch or coffee also went away.”
Instead of taking a proper lunch break, he’ll graze throughout the day, especially because eating lunch out every day isn’t feasible and finding time to cook takes too much time.
Scott Harrison, a fitness and nutrition expert, sees this often. “Another reason people are more likely to skip lunch is that the world has got very ‘fast,’ meaning no time to waste and many tend to work through their lunch or sometimes do not even realize it and before they know it it’s time to go home,” said Harrison. “This is a false progression because we must fuel our bodies for optimum health and vitality and skipping meals means we malnourished ourselves and starve our body of important nutrients needed to flourish.”
What can employers do about it?
So what can employers do if they want to encourage employees to take a proper lunch break? They can start by implementing lunch as an activity, which is easier to do on in-person days.
“If you make it an event that there will be lunch there, that’s a way to improve job performance,” said Swint. “Seventy-eight percent of workers agree taking a lunch break improves their job performance. If you know taking a break will let you do your job better, it’s a really strange thing why that’s not happening.”
And when people are remote, it could be done through a “Lunch and Learn.” For example, Rachel Zimmerman’s digital marketing agency, Taktical Digital, pays for their lunches and they hop onto a special training session during the lunch hour once a month.
“Not only does it make sure we eat, but it also is staying productive during lunch and we can always take a real break before or after the meeting,” said Zimmerman.
That can help workers build a routine to continue taking their lunch break, even on days that there isn’t a Lunch and Learn or they aren’t in the office.
“If that’s part of your daily routine, you’ll just start blocking out that time to go grab a meal, whether you’re at home or on-site,” said Swint. “Employers should make sure they are building in those breaks and help them make it easy.”