Is the long lunch a thing of the past?

Nearly three quarters of Australian workers are not taking their full designated lunch break, with almost one in 10 skipping lunch breaks altogether, a new survey by Hays has found.

The recruitment firm asked 1253 professionals about their lunch habits. Twenty-eight per cent said they take their full break most days, 22 per cent take half and 7 per cent never take a break.

That's despite 93 per cent of respondents admitting they see improved productivity when they step away from the office.

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"I was surprised at the percentage of people who take no break at all," Hays managing director Nick Deligiannis said.

"This is your opportunity to step away from your desk and get some fresh air. It's important for your mental wellbeing."

Asked what helps them stay fresh and alert, 65 per cent said getting away from their desk to eat lunch, 56 per cent said short five-minute breaks for fresh air and 50 per cent said a lunchtime break from all devices.

While he doesn't believe the traditional lunch break was becoming a thing of the past, Deligiannis said in "some business cultures there has been an unwritten rule that people need to be visible at their desks at all times".

"This is starting to change, but some people may need a gentle push from their manager to take a break," he said.

"In some organisations, managers may need to lead by example by taking a break themselves. Managers can also communicate the advantages of a lunch time break. For example, taking a break helps us overcome the 3pm energy slump. It's the key to a productive afternoon."

Deligiannis said it may not be that we are necessarily busier, but that we "don't want to switch off". "Technological change has blurred the lines between work and life," he said.

"Today we can use our devices to check and respond to emails at any time, day or night. Some people feel that they always need to be available to respond to emails immediately. So they'll stay at their desk rather than step outside for a break."

'You end up hating life'

Patrick Elliott worked as an analyst three years, most recently at investment bank Credit Suisse in Sydney, before leaving the industry 18 months ago to start his own business, Intrepid Cleaning.

"The industry's pretty brutal, often if we were working a transaction or anything like that we would work up to 100 hours each week," he said.

"If there's a deal on you skip lunch. Even my managers and directors, the top dogs, they would often skip lunch or quickly eat a sandwich at their desk or something like that."

Elliott quit due to the poor work-life balance. "It's good experience obviously, in those three years you probably get six years of experience, but you can only do it for so long until you end up hating life," he said.

Obstetrician Dr Joe Sgroi and his team are always on standby for emergencies, baby deliveries and patient needs, meaning they have limited lunch break times.

"The nature of my business means I'm pretty flat out during the course of the day, so lunch breaks unfortunately might not be available to me," he said.

"But the most important thing is to take those small, short breaks, even five minutes just to sit down, relax, collect your thoughts and recuperate."

Sgroi said an old-fashioned smoko — minus the cigarette — was the right idea. "What that did was force people out to the fresh air, for want of a better word," he said.

"That's gone and so it should, but the ritual of getting some proper fresh air (is good). Take 10 minutes out just to sit away from your desk without any distractions, including your smartphone."

Uzair Moosa, founder and chief executive of online food ordering app Hey You, said he often skipped lunch because it allowed him to finish his day earlier.

"I've got a young daughter, so it helps me not taking a lunch break," he said. "There are limited hours during the day. If I step out for lunch that takes away 45 minutes or so, which can potentially be one meeting."

But he encourages his staff to take lunch breaks. "My feeling is that everyone should take a lunch break, but at the same time what I want to do is make it more efficient," he said.

Hey You, which launched four years ago and has more than 500,000 downloads, allows users to "order ahead" so they don't have to wait in line. It currently processes about six million orders a year.

"Essentially that gives you 15 to 30 minutes back, you can decide what you want to do in that time," Moosa said.

The law of the lunch

Employees covered by the modern awards system typically have a legal right to take a 30-minute meal break after five hours of work, in addition to a number of 10-minute breaks.

For people not covered by an award, "strictly speaking" there's no statutory right to take a meal break but virtually all contracts include them, according to McDonald Murholme principal lawyer Trent Hancock.

"Unfortunately there's an amount of pressure on employees to work through their lunchbreaks, either directly or indirectly," he said.

"Employees have a right to exercise their entitlements under modern awards and not to have any form of adverse action taken against them for asserting that entitlement."

That said, clockwatching, work-to-rule employees who are vocal about asserting their rights can often be treated unfavourably in subtle ways.

"Employers shouldn't be fearful of retaliation from employers for exercising their rights but unfortunately it is (common)," Hancock said.

"It happens and we see it quite consistently when an employee is given an unreasonable workload that will require them to work through their lunch break."

Often the employee will be "performance managed". "Certainly not overtly, more covertly," he said.

"Normally employers aren't silly enough to say, 'We're treating you unfavourably because you exercised that workplace right.'"