HR TIP: FAILURE TO LUNCH: The lamentable rise of desktop dining is food for thought

Sitting in front of a computer for lunch is becoming almost standard these days, as 62 percent of professionals say they typically eat lunch at their desks, a phenomenon that social scientists have begun calling ‘‘desktop dining.’’ Eating takes a back seat to meetings, catching up on to-dos or responding to email. Roughly half of American adults eat lunch alone. In research from the Hartman Group, many so-called millennial wage earners said they actually preferred eating solo. A quarter of those surveyed agreed with the statement ‘‘I eat alone to multitask better.’’

In a recent NY Times Magazine article, Failure to Lunch, Malia Wollan reports that there is a possible health benefit to all of this: Our unaccompanied lunches are probably smaller.

Studies show that simply eating with one other person increases the average amount ingested by 44 percent. In fact, the more people present, the more people eat. One study showed that with seven or more, subjects ate 96 percent more than they would have alone!

But with the clearly delineated lunch on the decline, workers end up snacking. In a study of 122 employees, people on average cached 476 calories’ worth of food in their desks.

Then there’s the “hazardous” factor to consider about shared workplace refrigerator. In a survey of more than 2,100 full-time professionals, nearly all had access to refrigerators. When asked about cleanliness, a full 40 percent were unaware of fridge cleaning or knew it to be rare or nonexistent. Navigating around a colleague’s forgotten bag of slimy baby carrots might be gross, Wollan points out, but the bigger danger in a fridge is the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Unlike other pathogens like E. coli, listeria can thrive at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the recommended temperature for refrigerators.

Beyond any health risks, the desk lunch detracts from our sense of the office as a collaborative, innovative, sociable space. It is hard to foster that feeling when workers eat single-serving yogurt alone, faces lit in the monochrome blue of their computer screens.

In the article, Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, points out that desktop dining isn’t even a sign of industriousness anymore; these days, a desk luncher is as likely as not to be scrolling through Facebook. Wansink and other researchers did a survey of fire-department captains and lieutenants in a major American city. They found significant positive correlations between work performance and eating and cooking as a team. Firehouses where firefighters ate together reported more cooperative behavior; they were better at their jobs.

Food for thought!

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