Eating alone at work while checking your email might feel productive, but there are many benefits to eating with one's colleagues, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to explain why people should think twice before scarfing down that sandwich at their desk alone.

Rick Cluff:  It seems that taking a lunch break with co-workers is a thing of the past. What's going on?

Jennifer Newman: Workers are prone to eating and working at the same time, usually alone. It seems productive — they answer email, finish reports, or eat in the truck between deliveries.

Stopping to eat at a table and doing so with co-workers has almost become a luxury. Yet, some seem to prefer solo eating. They don't want to sit around talking and eating with colleagues. It 'eats' into what they can get done in a day. Some want to avoid people at work, so eating and working gives a handy excuse in that case.

What are the effects of solo eating or skipping meals to keep working?

Sharing meals together builds relationships. Workers miss out on opportunities to get to know each other better if they eat alone. Eating together can also encourage cooperation. A lot of informal communication can happen over meals, so colleagues may miss out on information they need to do their jobs. Even so-called 'small talk' can boost performance.

Jennifer Newman

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

The friendly tone set when colleagues eat together can support more intense conversations later in the day. By eating alone, workers miss out on the benefits of camaraderie, increased cooperation and performance. They also tend to be less satisfied at work.

But isn't it tempting to keep reducing the to-do list, rather than take time out for food with co-workers?

Absolutely. Some are torn whether to get things done, or take a break to eat and chat with colleagues. Many don't see it as useful, they think it's a waste of time.

For example there was a worker who liked staying at his desk to eat. It was his only time to catch-up. He interacted with his colleagues at meetings and saw no need to have lunch with them too.

If workers see no benefit to eating together, it won't happen. It requires a change in mindset to some extent.

Old habits die hard. If it's really better to eat with colleagues, how can workers shift their behaviour?

Sometimes it's as simple as noticing you eat alone, a lot. If you eat at your desk and use your break to surf the net, maybe consider having one day where you eat with co-workers. If you tend to plough through your to-do list while eating, schedule at least some time in the week to eat with another worker.

Worker well-being increases when they socialize a bit, and if workers have friends at work they tend to be more engaged. Use the opportunity to get to know other people in your organization.

175817189

Start to see eating together as important to productivity — as important as reading and answering email during your lunch break, Newman says. (Getty Images/Cultura RF)

For example, an IT worker decided to network more. She started inviting colleagues from other departments to go for lunch. She used the time to find out how IT services were perceived in the company. By doing so she slowly improved the relationship between IT and other parts of the organization — and she met a lot of new people. So it is a very productive thing to do.

What about when employees take long lunches? Encouraging workers to go for lunch with each other could backfire, couldn't it?

Yes, if an employee is doing less than required by taking long lunches, long breaks, coming in late, or leaving early. They are then unproductive because of time theft. If an employee is not pulling their weight, it is important to discuss it.

I'm talking about staff who work hard — they benefit from breaks to eat with co-workers. It's the staff member who keeps working through breaks, skips meals and eats alone so they can finish things, who may suffer. Not taking sufficient breaks, missing out on workplace friendships and isolating yourself can take a toll over the long term.

What can organizations do if they see a trend towards solo-eating?

Some organizations spend a lot of money on team building. But an informal way to team build is encourage staff to go for meals together as part of their day. Start to see eating together as important to productivity — as important as reading and answering email. Both involve communicating with others to get the job done.

Eating together is a way to be productive too. Companies can encourage drivers to rendez-vous for a meal. The benefits are increased satisfaction, performance, cooperation and engagement.     

Having a simple meal together, every so often feeds workers and organizations alike.

This interview has been edited and condensed

With files from CBC's The Early Edition


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says there are many benefits to eating lunch with one's colleagues