Why taking a lunch break is so vital for your staff

Eating al desko is contrary to the science of peak performance, says Dr Preethi Daniel

One of the most important things any employee can do to boost their productivity at work is to take their full lunch break. However, many people neglect this important period and will either not eat lunch or will do so at their desk while working. We instinctively know this could be having an effect on health, concentration and productivity – what we might not know is why. 

It’s not necessarily news that the right foods will improve brain function, but paying closer attention to glucose intake will definitely help improve productivity. Just as athletes affect their performance by eating the right things, concentration and productivity depends on what you eat and when you eat it. Your body is a machine that needs fuel, and the main fuel for the brain is glucose – by which we don't mean sugar, we mean the byproduct of breaking down yummy snacks.

We all know a big dinner is bad for us and that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Lunch, however, is often ignored and we can get into the habit of settling for a sad little sandwich at the desk. By skipping lunch or not getting the right lunch, you starve your brain and muscles of the key nutrients needed to function at peak level. Glucose, hydration and antioxidants are vital to ensure optimum productivity and concentration. Lack of hydration and glucose as fuel means irritability, poor concentration and ultimately poor performance. 

Employers should absolutely allow for lunch and actively encourage employees to take their breaks, particularly a full lunch break. According to the government, every four hours of continuous work requires a 30-minute break and this should be definitely be honoured. 

But employers should also aim to plan ahead and provide healthy balanced meals and snacks in their canteens. Foods that help brain power include nuts (especially almonds), dark chocolate and blueberries. But equally, eating fat or sugar-rich foods will result in a post-meal slump and cause sluggishness or sleepiness, which is the last thing you want your employees to be feeling. 

It is important to keep hydration up, eat the required minerals and vitamins by adding more veg, and not neglect proteins and healthy fats such as avocados and nuts. Slow release foods such as whole grains and lower GI foods will help sustain energy levels for longer.

We often snack mindlessly or eat lazily at the desk. The cake your colleague brought or the packet of popcorn in your desk drawer, for instance, mean you may be snacking often and on the wrong things. Providing access to fresh fruit or nuts to snack on instead is more likely to lead to a happy workforce.

When it comes to night shift workers, there is a specific issue to address. Eating at night increases fat storage and negatively affects metabolic conditions such as diabetes. It is even more important to eat more healthily when doing shift work, while making sure to include all food groups. 

There is also evidence that a compound implicated in heart disease is higher in night workers, and this goes up with meat intake. Such employees must eat three healthy meals at regular intervals and make a conscious effort to avoid high-fat and high-protein foods at night. Employers should encourage night workers to snack less and eat a balanced meal of lean protein and vegetables.

Of course, it is tricky for employers to ‘impose’ healthy eating, whatever time it is. Their role in this situation is to promote overall healthy living, which can be done by highlighting the importance of food (perhaps focusing on specific targets such as sugar or salt intake) or paying attention to mental health. 

There also needs to be more specific education around taking a ‘proper’ lunch away from your desk. Neurones in the brain get tired and eating at the desk is not considered to be a good way to replenish cognitive stock. Scientifically speaking, our brain can work for 90 minutes and needs 20 minutes to recharge, so a lunch break away from the office for a minimum of 20-30 minutes should be actively encouraged. You’ll get the most out of your employees if you do – and that’s better news for everyone.

Dr Preethi Daniel is medical director at London Doctors Clinic