Work through lunch? You're giving your company over R500k

A new survey has found that only one in three South Africans take their full lunch break, leaving most employees unhappy, stressed and sometimes indifferent

28 October 2018 - 00:00 By SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER
Lwandile Bhengu eats lunch on the job. Many people do not have time for lunch breaks.
Lwandile Bhengu eats lunch on the job. Many people do not have time for lunch breaks.
Image: Jackie Clausen

Durban university worker Anisa Ibrahim* prefers to scoff down lunch at her work station despite being entitled to an hour's break.

She's not looking for praise or reward; she uses her break to trawl social media and also catch up on work.

"Although it's much healthier to have a change of environment, I prefer to catch up on Facebook and a bit of work."

Ibrahim said dispensing with her lunch break was not unusual.

The Cost of a Lunch Break survey, released this week by online job board CareerJunction, explored lunch break habits.

It found that only one in three South Africans took their full lunch break, leaving them unhappy, stressed and sometimes indifferent.

The survey of 3,000 workers found that the average South African worked two-and-a-half years overtime during their lifetime because of unused lunch breaks. 

"That amounts to a staggering R512,465 worth of free work and unnecessary time spent at their desks instead of taking a break," said Odile Badenhorst, CareerJunction's spokesperson.

Sixty-seven percent said they ate at their desks while working, and 71% browsed the internet, if they weren't eating.

The research also showed that though the average lunch break allocated to employees was 60 minutes, the average time taken each day was only 24.5 minutes.

More than two-thirds said their employers encouraged them to take lunch; 19% claimed they felt pressured not to take lunch; 38% had too much work.

In Numbers

• 45% - The proportion of South Africans who spend less than R100 a week on lunch.
• Smokers - The employees who take an average of three to four smoke breaks each day.
• Bathroom break - The most frequent break taken by employees.
• R512,465 - The value of the uncredited overtime that employees amass spending their lunch breaks at their desks during their working life.

A Johannesburg social-media manager, who did not want to be identified, said he often skipped his one-hour break when he was overloaded with work or had to meet a deadline.

"I would rather work through my lunch hour than stay longer at the office."

He said taking a lunch break was important, especially "when work gets too much and I just need to get away from my desk".

"Not taking lunch means frequent coffee breaks and the inability to concentrate when feeling hungry," he said.

Nelesh Dhanpath, a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg's department of industrial psychology and people management, said it had become part of work culture in many organisations for workers to skip lunch breaks.

"This is often confused as an indicator of commitment and performance to the work itself. There are many ill effects associated with this."

Dhanpath said not taking time out from the work station was likely to result in diminished concentration and reduced energy levels and fatigue.

"Like a repeat script, employees find themselves doing this often and it can eventually result in burnout.

"Additionally, some employees are forced to work during their lunch breaks and this might result in negative emotions towards their work and employer," he said.

"Depending on employee work schedules, employers need to embrace a lunch culture and encourage breaks or micro-breaks, which have the potential to mitigate levels of exhaustion and enhance productivity and employee wellbeing and experience," he said.

Though some South African conglomerates approached by the Sunday Times opted not to comment about their break policies, Discovery said its new Sandton headquarters was designed to promote the wellbeing of staff.

Make a meal of it

Four reasons you should avoid
eating at your desk:

1. You may be more likely to overeat;

2. You don’t get to take a 'brain break';

3. You’ll lack variety;

4. You’ll miss out on socialising.

"Central to the design and philosophy of our new headquarters is to encourage a culture of wellbeing and engagement, with a key focus on enabling employees to get active," said a Discovery statement. "The floor designs are designed to encourage people to walk around and use the designated pause areas to meet or take a break.

"We have research that shows that engagement in physical activity triggers other healthy lifestyle behaviours - 28% of smokers quit and more than 12% of people eat healthier when increasing their physical activity.

"Research from the Vitality HealthyFood benefit has shown that people make healthier food choices if these options are made more affordable and easier to identify," said the statement.

The medical aid scheme has also included a number of food options at discounted prices for its employees, to improve their eating habits.

"With the exception of our call-centre staff, who are required to work fixed hours to provide a structured service to our stakeholders, our employees work flexible hours and can take breaks throughout the day."

*Not her real name.

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