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Australian workers take the lid off lunch breaks

In 2017, lunch was found to be an endangered privilege among Australian workers, as respondents reported concerning frequencies of being asked to work through lunch. Almost a quarter said it was a daily occurrence, while 45% said working through lunch was asked of them between two to four times each week.

TSheets (now QuickBooks Time) revisited the topic in 2019 with a global lunch break study, comparing more than two dozen countries. As a standalone from the global study, TSheets also surveyed 600 employees in Australia to see if mourning is truly in order for the midday break or if it has simply evolved with the times.*

Overall, the land Down Under is definitely aligned with the world, wherein a 30-minute lunch break is the norm, and most employees like their meal break just the way it is. Friday is the day employees (35%) are most likely to skip lunch, presumably to get the weekend started. When employees do take breaks, the office break room is the go-to, suggesting a dedicated space is a strong catalyst.

Good news: 90% of Australian employees get a lunch break

meal break provision is not a Fair Work Act entitlement, but the standard suggestion is to provide employees who work more than five hours in a shift with an unpaid 30-minute (minimum) meal break.

More than half (54%) of respondents in the standalone survey say they get a meal break regardless of how long they work, whilst 36% say their meal break is dependent on the duration of their shift. For employees who do get a meal break, most receive the 30-minute global average. 17% say they get a full hour, followed by an elite 2% who report having two to three hours to enjoy their meal break.

For 61%, working through lunch feels flat out like a lizard drinking

Many employees, 65% to be exact, know taking a break helps them to come back refreshed. Respondents say they are more productive at work when they do take their lunch break. So why aren’t employees taking their break as needed?

61% say they skip lunch or breaks all together because there is too much work and not enough staff to share the load. Indicators of workplace culture also emerge, as 1 in 10 says they’re working through lunch because:

  • They want to impress their boss or manager.
  • They’d feel guilty for taking a break.
  • Everyone does it.

Additionally, 63% say their boss or manager doesn’t encourage them to leave or stay during their lunch break, suggesting the stamp of approval may be the catalyst employees need to take better care of themselves.

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1 in 3 employees says their meal of choice for lunch is a sandwich, with a resounding 77% confidently rating their meal as “healthy” or “very healthy.” 36% spend between $5 and $10 during lunch, which appears considerably low.

More surprising is how 1 in 3 says they can get away with a full belly on $5 or less. When deciding what to eat, respondents say convenience is a top priority, followed by taste, price, and nutritional value. Similar to data from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., most employees in Australia say nay to seafood in the office. Other notable forbidden foods include “cabbage” and “smelly cheese.”

Sacrificing meals and breaks for more flexibility

2 in 10 employees in the survey skip all breaks by choice. A similar figure is reflected in responses from those who say they work through lunch to create more flexibility in their schedules, whether it’s to allow them to come in later or leave work earlier. According to the 2018 Robert Half Salary Guide, 84% of Australian office workers are willing to accept a lower salary for more benefits, such as flexible working hours and the option to work from home.

When asked about what they’d do if they were provided with a longer lunch break, it’s apparent time is a precious commodity. Respondents in the standalone TSheets (now QuickBooks Time) survey would simply use the time to do more things—like spend time with family, check on pets, and run errands—suggesting the provision may never realise its original purpose again.

3 ways to help employees get the most out of their breaks

Every business is responsible for its workers’ wellbeing. Here are some points to consider to get employees onboard:

  • Separate work time and break time.

Being physically away from one’s desk helps to facilitate a better disconnect. Making break times a digital detox further reduces distractions. Depending on the employee, it can also be a social chinwag or a zen session.

  • Offer flexible working hours.

This may not be possible for all businesses, but flexible working hours don’t have to be all or nothing. From compressing working hours to the occasional flexitime, employers can help employees keep life’s inevitable distractions at bay so they can do their best work at work.

  • Make daily breaks the law.

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, 80% of employees in Australia and New Zealand perceive business owners as role models, adding more weight to how employers and managers need to lead by example, and it should be no different with breaks. In the same report, 86% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Absenteeism costs Australian employers more than $10 billion per annum. That’s a problem we already have solutions for.

*TSheets (now QuickBooks Time) commissioned Pollfish to survey 600 Australian employees in February 2019, aged 18+ and employed for wages, to learn more about their habits and views pertaining to lunch breaks. TSheets designed the survey and welcomes the re-use of this data under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original source is cited with attribution to “TSheets (now QuickBooks Time).”

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