Millennials Fear Lunch Break 'Stigma' More Than Other Generations

Mike Pomranz
A new survey suggests that millennials worry more about lunch breaks than previous generations.

This week, Tork – which bills itself as “the maker of nearly half of the napkins used in the food service industry in the U.S.” – announced the results of a survey the brand commissioned on the topic of lunch breaks. Their big takeaway: Millennials (defined as workers 18 to 35 years of age) would like more fulfilling, more regular lunch breaks, but are also more worried about the ramifications of taking lunch breaks than other generations.

Specifically, Tork found that millennials are nearly three times more likely than Baby Boomers to believe that coworkers would judge them negatively if they regularly took a lunch break. And yet, 44 percent of Millennials strongly agreed that they look forward to their lunch break versus only 36 percent of Gen Xers. Interestingly, this issue is somewhat self-inflicted: The survey also found that Millennial bosses were about twice as likely as Gen X bosses to look down on employees who took lunch breaks.

Tork’s answer is its “Take Back the Lunch Break” initiative, for which they partnered with nutrition expert and TV personality Joy Bauer to hammer that point home. “Choosing to eat a nutritious lunch is only part of the equation to living a healthy life at work,” Bauer said in the announcement. “What you eat matters, but where you eat matters just as much, and eating a so-called ‘sad desk lunch’ could make you feel unhappy and less productive.”

Tork would seem to be on the right path, but it’s also an optimistic approach. I’m not technically one of this survey’s Millennials; I’m right on the edge. And maybe because of that, I’ve worked at companies with modern lunch break stigmas, but I've also had at least one job with an old-school “power lunch” mentality. Personally, as much as I wasn’t a fan of the former, the latter was even worse. In the middle of the day, I’d eat heavy food – often coupled with a couple glasses of wine – and return back the opposite of refreshed: groggy and maybe even a bit lost on what work I had left behind. Adding insult to injury, sometimes I’d end up stuck in the office late because I’d wasted such a big chunk of my day.

On the flip side, desk lunches don’t have to be “sad.” Some of my favorite lunches ever have been at my desk, usually brought in from a restaurant, but sometimes brought in from home. Maybe I just wanted to catch up on some internet or personal email time. Maybe I actually wanted to keep working. Maybe I just wanted to zone out in a familiar space. (Here are a few of our favorite desk lunches that are the opposite of sad.)

Another modern trend has been “mindfulness,” and though I agree that regular lunch breaks can be important, bringing a certain amount of daily mindfulness to your lunch hour is what has always worked best for me. The truth is, the lunch break whistle has disappeared because, for many jobs, every work day is different. Instead of falling into a habit of any kind – be it always eating at your desk or always scheduling lunch with a coworker – I approach each lunch as a unique experience to make that day as good as possible, and it’s been a solid path to lunch break bliss. Yes, some days you need to go out and get a good meal to feel good. But some days you need to power through lunch because your evening plans are more important than your afternoon ones. The best lunch is the lunch that’s best for you on any given day.

Meanwhile, there’s another important stat that Tork cites: “37 percent of Millennials don’t feel empowered to take a lunch break,” the survey states. Frankly, that lack of empowerment is the real issue that needs to be addressed, and it’s not necessarily one that a nutrition expert can fix.