Government health minister says eating at desks is ‘disgusting’, but should it be banned?

Recent research has found that nearly two thirds of workers eat their lunch at their desk every day, with many admitting they would feel ‘guilty’ if they left the office for their allocated hour.

Many workers are no longer paid for their lunch breaks, and therefore have every legal right to leave the premises for a full 60 minutes each and every day.

So why are we rushing out to pick up a quick meal deal and heading straight back to dine ‘al desco’?

Put simply, times are tough for most companies at the moment and employees are feeling this strain more than anybody. So while stomachs might be calling for lunch, there’s a good chance that the boss is calling even louder for the completion of the next piece of work.

Sure, we would all enjoy being able to leave the office – and to leave our emails there while we’re at it – to enjoy a leisurely lunch for a full 60 minutes, but the fact is it just isn’t viable for the majority of employees anymore.

So is eating at your desk as disgusting as Anna Soubry has suggested, and if so, can it harm your health?

Dr Ron Cutler, a microbiologist at Queen Mary University of London, believes a quick lunch at the desk could be potentially threatening to your health:

He said: “The crumbs that accumulate on your desk and in your keyboard provide a perfect environment for bacteria and fungi to thrive.

“The temperature in offices is typically around 20C, the point at which staphylococcus can breed, causing diarrhoea and vomiting — which is why leaving your sandwich on your desk all morning is also a risk.

“And the more people who share office equipment or desks, the greater the risk of catching a bug.

“The more people use certain equipment, the more germs will be on it.”

It appears then, that your desk probably isn’t the most hygienic place to consume your lunch.

So how can companies maintain staff productivity levels, while lowering their exposure to such potentially unsanitary conditions?

The simple answer would be to introduce a ban on staff eating at their desks and force them to leave the office. However, this might result in them feeling extra pressure to meet deadlines and leave them feeling frustrated.

Although, having said that, I used to work at a busy law firm in Paris, were the lunchtime culture resulted in two-hour breaks filled with eating and exercise – not at the same time of course – and productivity levels didn’t seem to suffer at all.

Eating away from the desk may even result in workers taking less sick leave, as germs are prevented from traveling around the office so freely, and therefore output levels might actually increase.

The other option, and probably the more viable one to many businesses, is to introduce a regular cleaning process. This would ensure that desks and workstations are fully cleaned and sterilised, reducing the number of germs in circulation.

To ensure that employers are acting lawfully, they must also be aware of their employees’ rights when it comes to lunch-time dining:

  • For employers, ensure that you include break periods within contracts of employment so that your staff know what to expect each lunch time.
  • If this is not the case, the Working Time Regulations state that an adult employee is entitled to a 20 minute rest break, during a daily working time of more than 6 hours per day, and under normal circumstances, they are absolutely entitled to take that rest break wherever they want, including leaving the premises.
  • However, breaks cannot be taken at the end of the working day – it must be somewhere in the middle.
  • Employers have the right to manage the time when breaks are taken, as long as it meets these conditions.
  • Employees have no statutory right to take smoking breaks.

To summarise, however your company chooses to combat the issue of eating ‘al desco’, the most important factor for many employers is the productivity and motivation of their staff. Whatever you decide to do, be sure to consult your team and involve them in any decision you make. If you can achieve staff buy-in, creating the lunchtime culture you want will be much easier.


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