The rise of desk-lunching is a growing trend in Western culture as an increasing number of busy bee workers resort to eating lunch in front of their computer screens. Professional experts have been telling us the habit is terrible for our mental health, while some even suggest it lessens productivity because our brain is incapable of focusing for too long without a break.
However, new German research casts doubt on the claim that desk lunches reduce our productivity.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that eating lunch with your coworkers at a restaurant reduces your cognitive functioning, and in turn, makes you less efficient at detail-oriented tasks.
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In a small experiment involving 32 women, participants either ate a solitary meal alone at their desk in a restricted amount of time, or took a short walk to a restaurant for an hour-long lunch with a friend. All meals were identical.
After the meal, women who had a restaurant lunch were calmer and less alert than those who ate at their desks. They also fared more poorly on performance tests of cognitive control and showed decreased control over error monitoring processes.
"Reduced cognitive control is a disadvantage when close self-monitoring of performance and detailed attention to errors is required, such as in numerical processing," the researchers write. "In other situations, [less] cognitive control may be advantageous, such as when social harmony or creativity is desired."
In other words, people in certain jobs or those who have to complete tasks of a specific nature, may benefit from taking a lunch break with their colleagues and shutting their mind off for a temporary period of time.
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Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace, tells Time that getting away from your desk can provide a boost in creativity.
“Never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative,” she says. “It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested. If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favours.”
Furthermore, there may be other health reasons to take a lunch break with coworkers. Recent research suggests that sitting for prolonged periods of time can lead to a host of health complications such as an increase risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and high blood pressure.