Eating Lunch At Your Desk Brings Health Risks




Recent research by BUPA has highlighted how many UK workers don’t take a proper lunch break each day and end up risking their health and happiness and reducing their productivity by eating at their desks.

The Number

The research, which involved the study of the habits of 2,000 full-time workers revealed that almost two thirds (64 per cent) claim they are not always able to take their legally required 20-minute break when working six hours or more.  Also, only 29 per cent of employees said they take a full hour for lunch every day and only 28 per cent of workers said they never take a breather of any kind during the working day.

Working Lunch & Eating At The Desk

According to the research, with 45 per cent of employees not leaving the workplace during what should be lunchtime, and with one-third of employees (31 per cent) usually eating at their desk, this results in them having what is essentially just a working lunch as they have to respond to work calls (42 per cent) and to emails (40 per cent) while they’re eating at their desk.

Health (and Happiness) Risks

There are many health risks associated with not taking a proper lunch break and with having a ‘working lunch’ at the desk.  These include:

– Overeating due to distraction.  The ‘working lunch’ at the desk means that you don’t get/feel as full, which then leads to feeling hungry in the afternoon and then eating more.  This behaviour and its effects were studied and identified by researchers from the University of Surrey in 2012.

– Negative effects on health from sitting down most of the day.  Not taking a break, and not moving from your desk, let alone the workplace, can contribute to some serious health problems.  For example, a University of Leicester Study (2012) showed that sitting for long periods increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease and death and that this can be the case for people who meet typical physical activity guidelines.

– Staying seated at the desk for long periods during the day can cause tension in muscles, pain in joints, and can weaken hip and core muscles, which can, in turn, lead to other problems with muscles and joints.

– Increased stress levels can come from not having a break and from interruptions during eating.

– Risks from bacteria on the desk and on the keyboard (and phone) that can be exacerbated during eating and by dropping food particles from lunch at the desk.  For example, a Printerland survey (March 2018) showed that the average desk contains 400 times more germs than a toilet seat and that only a third of staff members follow guidelines about cleaning up their workplace, and one in 10 never clean their desks.

Productivity Affected

Not having a proper lunchbreak and detachment from work also affects the brain’s ability to effectively ‘reset’ and boost our attention and our body’s ability to refresh our energy.  This can lead to reduced productivity in the afternoon. It can also mean that we miss out on the inspiration, ideas, and clarity of thought (to potentially realise the solution to a work problem) that a break can deliver.


With the reduced productivity, increased stress, and physical problems that staying at a desk to eat brings can come lower levels of satisfaction and happiness at work and a faster route to ‘burnout’.


It is thought that feeling obliged to eat at the desk by the work culture in the UK, being seen to be at your desk through fear of appearing absent or not committed to and part of the company, work and culture, and/or feeling too busy/overloaded with work are some of the reasons for these unhealthy work break (or no break) patterns.

What Does This Mean For Your Businesses?

It is understandable that businesses, particularly where customers come in, frequently phone, or where service is particularly urgent, always need to have staff available to deal with customers and enquiries during business hours.  This, however, can still be achieved by the planning of rotas and by encouraging staff to make arrangements to ensure that communications are covered fairly while allowing for fixed breaks for all staff members.

Some ways that businesses and organisations can help staff to look after themselves, and in doing so, look after the company and its productivity include encouraging their employees to take lunches away from their desk, creating a physical environment where employees can take themselves away from their desks, managers leading the way in the behaviour they want to see in the workplace and in encouraging a healthy break-taking culture.  Also, workers can help to improve their own health at work by walking around more (and perhaps placing a laptop on a filing cabinet so they have to stand), having standing meetings, reducing TV viewing time when not at work (to help offset any continuing unhealthy behaviours at work), scheduling lunches with friends or alone to ensure that they actually leave the office and are more productive on their return.

That said, the workload, management style and values and the work culture can have a strong influence on whether workers feel able and safe to take breaks, and managers need to authorise, endorse, and be seen to reward a break-taking culture for it to succeed and hopefully, benefit the business in the process.


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Mike Knight