“No eggs, tinned fish or crunchy Twiglets”, were some of the responses I got on social networking site LinkedIn when I asked whether there were any workplace rules for what you could or could not eat at your desk.
It was the waft of chicken korma that had got me wondering. A weekly special from the BBC canteen, it’s a popular lunch in our office. Most eat it at their desk; the pungent smell drifting slowly through the air.
Sandwiches, soup, crisps or even a quick biscuit snack… desktop dining is something most of us have done. Either you’re too busy to take a break or want people to think you’re too important to step away.
The inevitable keyboard crumbs, audible crunching and often powerful odours are enough to wind up even the most easygoing of colleagues.
There are rarely official rules for what you can or cannot eat whilst sitting at your desk. Should firms get tougher on noisy al desko diners? And should we really be eating at our desks anyway?
Almost a quarter of us eat lunch at our desks, a survey by recruitment firm Glassdoor suggests.
Certain foods are guaranteed to cause irritation.
“Egg sandwiches smell out the office, probably one of the nastiest anti-social foods in the Western hemisphere,” says Don Burgess, who works for a brewing company.
Ajay, who works for a financial services firm, believes “no smelly food” should be “the golden rule”. Ideally, no one should be allowed to eat hot food at all at work, he says.
Daniel, who works in technology, says his office often “reeks of Chinese or fish”, and he believes all food should be eaten in the separate kitchen area provided.
“This not only enforces people pulling themselves away from their screen for a break but also means you don’t need to hear the person next to you chewing their food loudly whilst you are trying to concentrate,” he says.
Even snacking on fruit is too much for some people to bear. “If you have to eat, no noisy, crunchy apples,” says engineer Lucy.
Then there’s Twiglets. They “should be banned from all offices – especially when two or three bags are eaten in succession – far too much crunching, deafening”, says Carla, who works in sales.
Surely it would be easier for all of us if firms simply banned eating at our desks altogether?
Absolutely not, says David D’Souza, member director at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. This would be “too draconian or too paternalistic,” he says.
Instead, he says firms should do as much as possible to encourage people to eat away from their desks.
“The driver is not about annoying your colleagues, it’s about staff wellbeing. It’s hugely important for people and therefore an organisation’s productivity to have a chance to reset mentally; to make sure you’re thinking clearly and not making decisions while tired.”
Managers should set an example by taking regular breaks and encouraging staff to do likewise, he says. But Mr D’Souza also suggests an informal monitoring system, urging colleagues who we know work through lunch to take a breather.
Taking a break: What are your rights?
- If you work more than six hours a day, you have the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break
- Workers aged 16 and 17 must get at least a break of 30 minutes after working 4.5 hours
- You must be allowed to spend your break away from your desk or workstation
- The break doesn’t have to be paid – it depends on your employment contract
- The rest break must be taken during the working day. It cannot be tacked on to the start or the end of a shift
Instinctively, most of us know that stepping away from work, even if it’s just for ten minutes, makes us feel better.
Research has also suggested that it can also make us more effective at our jobs.
Workers who skip lunch are ultimately more stressed and less productive, an issue that could eventually lead to burn out, health journalist Christopher Wanjek found in his book about workplace eating habits.
Yet when work is busy we can feel judged for walking away.
Sam Abbott, head of business development for software testing services firm Abstracta, always used to eat at his desk and says by mid-afternoon he often had a headache. He recently moved to Uruguay in South America and now eats lunch with his co-workers because it’s what everyone does.
“Sitting down together and talking over food is a very cultural thing here.
“It is much more sociable and it gets people to have a break from staring at a screen all day. As the weather is good here most of the time it means we sit outside and eat which I love,” he says
Soft drinks firm Innocent Drinks is trying to encourage a similar approach to lunch in the UK.
Its head office has an official lunch hour between 1pm to 2pm with a large central dining area named the “chill out zone” where staff eat. It’s furnished with picnic benches and stocked with free drinks, breads, spreads and cereals and often hosts talks on various non-work related topics.
It sounds rather school-like, but Tim Dorsett, events manager at the firm, insists it’s “an offer” rather than something which is enforced.
The main point, says Mr Dorsett, is that it sends a message that staff are not expected to work non-stop.
“We recognise it’s a job. We’re not expecting blood, sweat and tears. It’s about setting the expectation of not having to be there.”
Yet for many of us there’s nothing worse than the idea of spending yet more time with our colleagues. A woman who works in public relations told me she’s been dubbed anti-social for spending her lunchtime alone.
“It irritates me on a day to day basis. Any time I get during the work day is precious to me. Everyone functions differently. I think it’s weird to spend all your lunchtimes eating with colleagues.”
As someone who has written this article, while eating a tuna fish bake – not heated up, I hasten to add – I sympathise. I usually take a lunch hour, but consider eating lunch during it a waste of my rare free time.