Are American workers playing ‘ketchup’ with their lunch breaks?

Global survey dispels popular myths, reveals surprises and quirky preferences about lunch breaks in the workplace

The U.S. has long held the unofficial reign, among Western economies, when it comes to employees and their forgotten lunch breaks. Perceptions of overworked Americans with al-desko lunches depict a wage system resembling more free work than free will. Meanwhile, European counterparts enjoy an exquisite repast at the local café, with sparkling water and after-meal espresso to match, as soft sunrays and a gentle breeze kiss their faces and tousle their hair.

But how accurate is this comparison? QuickBooks Time surveyed 15,000 employees in 27 countries to find out and calculate employees time off during their lunch break1

U.S. versus the rest of the world: Winners and losers

Among the 27 nations surveyed, the average lunch break duration is 35 minutes. This serves as an immediate indicator of where general practices stand. More surprising, perhaps, is how 4 out of 6 countries with the longest lunch break average are found in Asia.

The average from the 10 European nations surveyed is 33 minutes, three minutes shorter than the U.S.’ 36 minutes. Greece has the shortest break at 19 minutes, followed by Poland and Spain, the latter being home to the beloved midday siesta.

Seventy-four percent of U.S. respondents say they always get a lunch break, regardless of how many hours they’ve worked. And 26 percent say their lunch break is dependent on the duration of their shift.

When compared to her northern neighbor, the number of workers who don’t get a lunch break in Canada is five times higher than the U.S., but the distribution between those with 60 minutes or more are almost identical.

The lunch break culprits: Addressing the usual suspects

When asked about the reason for not taking lunch breaks, 74 percent of workers cite having too much to do (due to being short-handed) or using that time to catch up on emails.

Sixteen percent relish skipping lunch so they can be done with their workday sooner. A combined 20 percent work through their breaks because they feel guilty otherwise (9 percent), they want to impress the boss (7 percent), or they feel peer-pressured (4 percent).

Sixty-three percent say their immediate supervisor is indifferent where they go during lunch, but the remainder is split between supervisors who encourage employees to leave work during lunch breaks (21 percent) and those who discourage (17 percent) employees from leaving the office.

‘Please, sir, I want some more’ of the lunch-break status quo

Most surveys paint American workers as lunch-deprived and miserable, yet more than 55 percent of U.S. respondents from the QuickBooks Time survey like their lunch break as it is. Only 31 percent prefer it to be longer, and 10 percent actually wish they didn’t have to take one.

Data from our survey also reveals 58 percent of respondents are creatures of habit who enjoy a fixed daily lunch break duration. Thirty-five percent get to decide on their own, and the remaining 7 percent are at mercy of their supervisor or manager.

When asked to rate their typical meal, 61 percent say what they eat during their lunch is “healthy,” and 9 percent give their meal a confident “very healthy.” The remainder confess to consuming “unhealthy” meals (24 percent) and “very unhealthy” meals (6 percent).

When budgeting for lunch, 39 percent say they spend between $5 and $10 per meal, 29 percent can get by between $3 and $5, and an impressive 19 percent can fill up under $3. The rest is a smattering of higher-end expenses, from $10 to more than $25 per meal.

Workers informed on productivity but inclined to multitask

Sixty-three percent of U.S. respondents say they are more productive when they take a lunch break, while 58 percent say they return refreshed and perform better if they leave work during their lunch break.

When asked what they would do if they had a longer lunch break, many respondents would fill the time up with more things to do, thus negating the rest intended by the provision. But there is a silver lining. Thirty-four percent would choose to go home with the increased reprieve, while 18 percent would opt for a nap.

International Lunch Break Findings by Region

QuickBooks Time ran a one-question survey in 27 countries outside the U.S. wherein respondents were asked to identify the duration of their daily lunch break. The original hypothesis centers around the notion that American employees are green with envy of European workers’ long lunch breaks. The immediate findings include:

  • The average duration from European countries surveyed was lower than the U.S.’ and the overall mean.
  • Southeast Asian countries emerge victorious with the longest breaks.
  • The U.S. has the lowest number when it comes to employees without a lunch break.

‘Hasta la vista’ to the midday siesta?

The data shows how long lunches and afternoon naps simply aren’t true for all employees in Europe anymore. However, it should be noted a big chunk of European workers still has at least one hour to enjoy their meal, compared to an almost non-existent population in the U.S. So while midday siestas may no longer be the norm, most of Europe is still in control of their lunch break at work.

Let’s taco ‘bout lunch in Latin America

While 4 out of 10 employees in Brazil can take more than an hour for lunch, that number is more than halved in Costa Rica and Mexico. The majority of respondents in Costa Rica only has 15 minutes for their midday break, with the 30-minute norm enjoyed in other nations the minority. The same goes for Mexico, where 15 minutes is what most get, while getting no break and having 30 minutes rank second and a close third.

Bananas for lunch in South Africa

Among the three African nations surveyed, 1 in 3 employees gets at least half an hour to savor their midday meal. Meanwhile, 1 in 4 employees receives 60 minutes or more. On the other end of the spectrum, an average of 4 out of 10 employees get 15 minutes or no break during their workday.

Wok-ing hard in Asia Pacific and Russia

If the U.S. ranks first as the most overworked Western nation, perhaps no other region is known more for its working etiquette than Asia. There is a notion that employers are given the carte blanche to squeeze every drop of labor out of every employee at will and as pleased.

Yet the QuickBooks Time survey data reveals the majority of employees in all the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore have 60 minutes to enjoy their lunch. The average duration from these countries is 50 minutes, which is 15 minutes more than the survey’s overall average. Another interesting fact is how these countries also had an average of 15 national holidays in 2018, compared to U.S.’ eight.

However, Taiwan does make the top-three list for countries in this region with the highest number of employees denied of their lunch break, followed closely by Russia and Australia.

Food for thought: Work-life balance

In the past decade, the notion of “work-life balance” has undergone many iterations. Martha Stewart famously told Christine Romans, “It didn’t work for me. I had to sacrifice a marriage because of a great job. It’s impossible for most of us to get that balance.”

Perhaps the stumbling block lies in how some perceive “balance” as a recipe of dishing out equal parts to all things when, in truth, it’s more on countering different factors or influences. The key is to claim control and not let one part eclipse another.

The ball is in the employers’ court. Authority figures should encourage proper breaks for employees, which ensures their wellbeing and ability to do their best work, improving the state of the business. Allowing work to eat your employees’ lunch is a surefire path to burnout that benefits no one in the end.