What Happened When I Stopped Eating Lunch At My Desk

Photographed by Sara Haile.
My first job was working as a fitting room attendant at the T.J. Maxx in my hometown. The manager was great about giving us lunch breaks. I would sit in the tiny, but not uncomfortable, employee lounge, drinking a juice box and playing Tetris on my phone, glued to the plastic chair until 44 minutes and 45 seconds had passed. It was my time, my lunch, and organizing the shoe section could wait.

Entering the full-time workforce after college was a marked improvement from my retail days. I liked what I did, I could afford rent, and there were often free snacks. But gone were the days of spending my lunch break away from my work.

According to The New York Times, as of 2016, "62% percent of professionals say they typically eat lunch at their desks." It's often an unspoken rule. If all your coworkers have one hand on their keyboard and the other wrapped around a turkey club, it's easy to feel like you're shirking your duties when you grab a book, head to Panera, and ask for your soup “to stay.” But studies show eating lunch at your desk isn't good for your work performance or your personal well-being.

I was curious if I would see a marked improvement in said well-being and work performance if I stopped eating lunch while sitting in front of my computer, so I decided to take a week of lunch breaks. No desk, no quick glances at work emails on my phone. Just me, good company, and a kale salad (okay, not always a salad). Here's how it went.

Day 1

Around 2 p.m. I ducked out of the office, alone and in search of food, with the unshakable feeling that a truancy officer was going to come and haul me back to work. I ended up deciding, out of panic mostly, on frozen yogurt, trying not to look suspicious as I downed a cup of soft-serve as quickly as possible. It was intensely stressful, and the entire five-minute walk back, I was sure I would return to emails with subject lines like "where were you?!?" and "time-sensitive problem you caused!” Of course, there were no such emails in my inbox, and in the 25 minutes I was actually away the office, it’s unlikely any of my coworkers even noticed I was gone.

Days 2 & 3
The second and third days of my little experiment were infinitely better for a simple reason — I wasn't alone. I managed to coerce my coworkers to join me away from the office. Their company made me feel more confident — and less like I was shirking responsibilities. We looked, from a distance, like we were talking about strategy and other work-related topics, instead of chatting about wedding plans and TV. Throughout lunch, everyone repeated the same sentiment: “This is SO great. We should do it more often!” But, since the experiment, we haven’t managed another lunch away from our desks. Scheduling conflicts arise, assignments come up, and it becomes hard to justify any time away from work.

Day 4
A total bust. I had a four-hour block of meetings, so I had to order in — and then my lunch order was late, so I found myself eating during a meeting. I was still working while eating, but it felt a little different than the usual desk lunch. There's a kind of Mad Men vibe, a show of your multitasking skills, about nodding emphatically while spearing tomatoes with your fork. It might have been awkward if I had been eating alone, but everyone else at the meeting was grabbing a quick bite, too, and it was nice to have some solidarity.

Day 5
On the final day of the challenge, there was not a free coworker in sight, so I wimped out and decided against leaving the office. Instead, I stepped away from my desk and ate furtively in a corner, trying to seem inconspicuous, yet subtly busy — like I might be hard at work brainstorming but lacked the dexterity to type and eat.

So, what's the takeaway? In certain offices, getting away for lunch has become a small act of rebellion. But I’m not a rebellious person. If tomorrow, eating lunch at your desk were outlawed, I’d be excited. Sure, thanks to my experiment, I feel like I got to know a few of my coworkers better — and I was able to hit a kind of Wi-Fi reset button in my brain. But overall, it just wasn't worth it for me. There was no improvement in my well-being or work performance, just added stress. I'd rather be working and available for the entire day and truly enjoy my nights instead of worrying about an email I should have written or research I could have gotten done in the time it takes to step away from my desk. My Tetris days are over. My laptop is never going to be crumb-free. And I'm okay with that.