Why you need to take a real lunch break and stop worrying about what your co-workers think

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In grade school, we'd count down the moments until the lunch bell rang. As adults, we're happy to meet up with friends for meals on weekends. Yet at work, we rarely take actual lunch breaks, instead eating sandwiches at our desks without even looking away from our computers. What gives?

Well, despite some states having built mandated lunch breaks into employees’ jobs, far too few people take advantage of them; a recent survey by Tork found that 37 percent of working millennials are afraid to take a lunch break because they fear judgment from their co-workers and bosses. It doesn't matter that 88 percent of employers don't think any less of you if you do take that break, according to the same study — we still worry about how it looks, as well as how stepping away from our desks might impact our productivity.

And no, these concerns aren't healthy. “We live in a very different world today than when the Baby Boomers entered the workforce," Don Lewis, President of professional hygiene at Essity, tells Mic. "We’re more connected than ever, which means our work can take up more of our day, and the expectation for most Americans is to do more in less time, all to the detriment of our well-being."

For many of us, leaving work for any length of time causes professional FOMO; we think we'll miss something important, like an email or an impromptu meeting, so we stay put. It doesn't help that many millennial-focused offices provide snacks or full meals to keep employees at their desks and increase our workloads, as Strategy+Business executive editor Daniel Gross theorized in 2016. "Saving an "employee 30 minutes a day or encouraging her to work 30 minutes longer by forestalling the need to stop for breakfast, or go out for a coffee break, or eat lunch at the desk instead of going out," wrote Gross, "is an investment that pays off double every single day" for companies.

Our jobs want us to stay, we're worried about how leaving for 30 minutes will look to others, and we don't want to fall behind on work — so what do we do? Muster up the courage to take lunch anyhow, says Lewis. “Remaining at your desk and on a computer or laptop during lunch presents the opportunity to continue to work, even just to monitor incoming requests, and not truly take a break,” he says.

And yes, we all need real breaks during the workday. Here's why:

Lunch breaks can keep you from getting sick

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Eating at your desk can be unsanitary — just think of the co-worker who doesn't wash their hands and then asks to borrow your pens, or all those times you sneezed over your keyboard in the midst of a cold. Even if you do your best to keep the area clean, a study from the University of Arizona found that the average worker’s desk harbors 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, with disease-causing bacteria extracted off nearly every desk surface tested by researchers.

Then there's the fact that while having lunch at your desk, chances are you’re mindlessly eating while sneaking in some extra work emails or watching YouTube videos. This might seem harmless, but multitasking while eating prevents you from listening to your hunger cues and distracts you from truly savoring your food, which can cause overeating, according to research from the Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating a hearty lunch (in fact, some sources claim it’s the most important meal of the day!), but if you do overeat, you might spend the rest of the afternoon battling a food coma — not exactly conducive to a productive day's work.

They can give you more energy

A cup of coffee can only take you so far. In fact, a study from the journal Physiology and Behavior found that walking is more effective than low-dose caffeine at restoring energy levels in sleep-deprived women. So if you wake up feeling tired, bring a comfortable pair of shoes to work so you have no excuse but to go for a stroll at lunchtime.

While lunch breaks can do wonders for your physical energy, they can restore your emotional energy, too. Some people believe that only introverts feel depleted after extended periods of time being around other people, but a study from the Journal of Personality found the contrary to be true; both introverted and extroverted folks feel the need to withdraw from social situations and be alone on occasion. A solo lunch break can be a great way to regroup, recharge, and re-enter your office with a newfound tolerance — or even appreciation — for your co-workers.

They can make you feel connected

You don't have to go on your lunch breaks alone, of course. If you don’t get the chance to mingle around the office too often, head out to lunch with a group of colleagues. “A lunch break with co-workers is a great opportunity to bond outside of the office and strengthen a team’s working relationship,” explains Lewis. “Walk a few extra blocks with a co-worker to a local restaurant for a refreshing meal.”

Plus, turning a co-worker into a friend is great for both your job performance and overall satisfaction, positive feelings that extend well beyond your lunch break. And even if you work from home, it's a good idea to connect with other remote workers and plan to meet up a few times a week over lunch. Speaking out loud to another human being will definitely break up the monotony of each day.

They can make you more productive

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You might think that working through lunch will demonstrate that you have a strong work ethic, but you’re actually better off getting some time away. Research from social media company Draugiem Group found that employees who take frequent and short breaks, treating work as “sprints,” work more efficiently than employees who maintain a “jog” work pace throughout the entire day.

If you want to start using this kind of work mindset, Kat Cohen, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of IvyWise and author of The Truth About Getting In, says to "focus in and work intensely for relatively short stints" at a time. She recommends trying the Pomodoro Technique, where you work intently for 25 minutes, take a break for five minutes, and repeat. Every four stints of 25 minutes, treat yourself to a longer break. Why not make one of those lunch?

They can help you problem solve

If you’re stuck on an issue, your best bet isn’t to deplete your mental energy figuring out what to do, but to step away from it altogether. “Research shows that stepping back from a problem can help you solve it," Sian Beilock, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, tells Mic. "Lunch break can be an incubation period, which helps people shift their focus from irrelevant details and instead approach a problem from a fresh perspective, often producing an ‘Aha!’ moment that can ultimately lead to success."

While at lunch, spend that time eating, of course, but also doing whatever else distracts you from the issue. “Anything that gets your mind off what you're working on is likely helpful,” says Beilock.

When you come back to work, you'll have fresh eyes, a full belly, and possibly a new way to solve the dilemma.

They can grow your confidence

Worrying that your co-workers will judge your decision to go on a lunch break is understandable, considering the stigma that exists around taking time away from work. Yet chances are, your colleagues probably don't actually care about your lunchtime choices.

“We often spotlight ourselves — that is, we think other people are paying a lot of attention to what we’re doing. But, in reality, people are mostly paying attention to themselves," explains Beilock. "In other words, it’s unlikely that folks are monitoring your breaks. If you’re getting your work done and doing it well, that will speak for itself.”

So regardless of what you think your co-workers might say, take a deep breath and go for that break anyhow — they probably won't even notice.

They can save you time later on

Lunch breaks are great opportunities to take care of non work-related errands, like getting check-ups, buying household items, or going to the bank. The best part is that it won’t be rush hour, so traffic and lines won’t be as long, allowing you to get back to your desk in time.

When you use lunch to be productive in this way, it won't just take your mind off your job, it'll also give you a sense of accomplishment. Even better, it'll let you truly unwind when you get home, making you all the more focused and productive the following day when back in the office.

So the next time hunger strikes, go ahead and take a real lunch break, whether that means finding a quiet place in the park or joining colleagues at a café. Your work can wait, and we promise, no one’s judging you as harshly as you think.