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Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 12:11 UK

Are lunch breaks really for wimps?

Lunch at the desk
Look familiar?
Only one in six workers takes a regular lunch break, says new research. And one consequence of the credit crunch is that breaks are getting even shorter as job insecurity increases.

Are you reading this article while eating a sandwich at your desk?

If so, you are not alone. Research by human resources firm Chiumento has found that only 16% of employees regularly take a "proper" lunch break. By that, they mean about an hour's break away from their desk at least three times a week.

Andrew Hill, who helped conduct the study, says the British are deserting the lunch break in increasing numbers.

"Employees are struggling to keep on top of to-do lists and think the answer is to work harder, eating a sandwich at their desk as opposed to taking a full lunch break, and also not having sufficient breaks during the rest of the day.

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"But these breaks are essential for staff to perform at their best and cope with the daily pressures of work. Managers should be encouraging staff to take lunch breaks - their performance, and ultimately the business, may suffer otherwise."

A lunch break, he says, achieves three things: it helps the mind and body recharge; it enables people to step back and focus on what's important; and it makes them feel valued by their employer. And - just like after a sleep - solutions that seemed out of reach to a tired mind can suddenly surface to a refreshed one.

Sunbathers in London
It helps when the sun comes out...

Research a few years ago put the average lunch break at 27 minutes and Cary Cooper, occupational psychologist at Lancaster University, says that in the current economic climate it's getting even shorter.

"The vast majority of people are having lunch at their desk while working. That's the average person now. Very rarely do they get out of the office.

"If senior management create a culture that lunch is for wimps, it's counterproductive. We all need breaks."

It's important to take breaks with colleagues - sitting in the park or outside a pub, going out to buy sandwiches - because good social relationships lead to good working relationships, he says.

'Laziest in Europe'

"People feel they have to get to work early, stay late and not take lunch breaks and I think it's going to get worse because of job insecurity. People will want to show more commitment and that means working through their lunch and staying late.

"Although there are times when people have to work through, they should try to get out two or three times a week for a good hour, particularly in summer. Be brave, because in the end you will be judged by your output, not by your 'presenteeism'."

Peter Clayton
Peter Clayton says lunchtime running makes him sharper

In the 1970s the British were the laziest men of Europe. Now they are considered the workaholics of Europe, thanks to an adoption of the American work ethic in the mid-80s, says Professor Cooper. But tellingly, productivity per capita in the UK remains lower than many of its European neighbours.

In many cases it is out of the hands of employees to wander off for an hour, because their firms only allow a maximum of 30 minutes for lunch.

But Peter Clayton, 42, who works in human resources at pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, spends three or four lunchtimes a week running, for between 30 and 80 minutes.

"I definitely feel refreshed and mentally sharper when I come back. If I don't get out at lunchtime, the day just feels like one constant grind all the way through and I really like the way it breaks up the day."

It helps that his firm has a running club and a flexible working environment, which means he can put on his trainers between meetings.

And there is the added incentive - not shared by every workplace - of having the beautiful Cheshire countryside, including Alderley Edge, on the doorstep.

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