US Lunch 'Hour' Pared: 36 Minutes for a Snack

IT'S lunchtime. You run down to the vending machine on the fourth floor, grab one of those rubbery sandwiches, then head back to your desk to start cranking on that project due next week or to answer the half-a-dozen e-mail messages that have arrived since this morning.

Yesterday, you used your lunch hour to get the flat tire changed on your car and buy a wedding gift for your neighbor's daughter. And tomorrow, you have a "working lunch" with your department.

Gone are the days of the long lunch - a coveted time to decompress and get a recharge. In today's lean and mean corporate environment, workers are under pressure to do more in less time, and that is eating up their lunch hour.

Fifty-five percent of American office workers say that besides eating, they often do work, run errands, or go shopping during lunch, according to a survey by Steelcase Inc., a maker of office furniture in Grand Rapids, Mich.

At the same time, the lunch "hour" itself is shrinking. Office workers take, on average, only 36 minutes for lunch each day, with 14 percent saying they don't take any time for lunch at all, finds the survey of 1,000 men and women.

Those who study workplace trends say the increase in the number of Americans working through their lunch hours reflects a change in the nature of work.

In 1985, employees, on average, spent 70 percent of their day working individually and 30 percent working in a team or group, says Rick Mohr, manager of Steelcase's marketing validation team.

"Almost the exact opposite is occurring today," he says. "And what's happened is, there's been a real premium put on the beginning of the day, the end of the day, and the middle to do your individual 'stuff.' "

Of those surveyed, 53 percent said they socialize with friends, 44 percent run errands, and 38 percent work during lunch.

Mr. Mohr, who admits that he fits the 36-minute profile (when he doesn't go for a jog), speculates that the number who actually work during lunch is probably much higher.

While it's difficult to measure the effect this new lunch style has on the bottom-line, Mohr says he believes that businesses are reaping increased productivity.

When workers do take a full hour for lunch, Mohr guesses that they are probably having to make up for it.

"If you take a traditional lunch, you're probably going to try and figure out a way to make it up somewhere else," he adds, "by coming in early, staying later, or working at home at night."

Other of the survey's findings:

Office workers in the Northeast and those earning $50,000 or more a year are most likely to skip lunch altogether.

Men and women pass on the midday intermission in roughly equal numbers.

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