Eating at your desk, an annoyance and a necessity

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2014 - 3:14 PM

Desks are the hot new lunch spot, complete with pungent aromas and plenty of crumbs. Workers say they’re just trying to keep up, but the practice might actually be holding them back.

Mike O’Neill works in the IT department at the state office complex in St. Paul, which means he’s the one who gets the calls when workers who have been eating at their desks discover that their keyboards are clogged with food-related detritus.

“They are disgusting,” he said. “Filled with crumbs and sticky — yuck! And of course, there are the times when one of them spills a drink on their laptop. Then it’s an emergency I have to deal with.”

But he’s not lobbying for a ban on eating at office workstations because he also has a confession to make.

“I eat lunch at my desk every day,” he said.

Long gone is the two-hour, two-martini lunch that was the mainstay of the 1950s and ’60s. Eating lunch at your desk, once considered something done only under unusual circumstances, has become the norm. According to a Gallup Poll, two-thirds of American workers eat at their desks more than once a week.

And not just lunch.

“It’s breakfast, too,” said Laura Barclay, founder of the Civility & Etiquette Centre. “It’s become part of our culture.”

The practice also has become a topic of debate in human resources departments looking for common ground between employees who want to eat at their desks and co-workers who object to the practice.

It “can be annoying to co-workers,” said Kathryn Helmke, employee relations and benefits director at MRA, a nonprofit employer association that serves more than 4,000 Upper Midwest companies “There are aroma and hygiene issues. Some companies ban it.”

The bans typically target food allergies, pungent odors, messes being made in shared work spaces and leftover/discarded food that could attract rodents.

Employees who deal directly with customers — such as a dental office receptionist — almost always are forbidden to eat at their desks, and some employers feel that it’s better to have the same non-eating rules for everyone rather than let some partake and others not.

Whatever the rules may be, the reasons behind this surge in desk-dining are many. They include:

• Heavier workloads. “The work is driving our day and eating is secondary,” Helmke said. “I’ll eat at my desk if it means that I can go home at 6 instead of 6:30.”

• No convenient access to cafeterias or restaurants. And when the polar vortex swept down on us earlier this month, a lot of people’s definition of convenient was expanded to mean “not having to leave the building,” said Michelle Love, MRA’s chief marketing and technology officer.

• Replacing lunch with errands or exercise. “I eat at my desk every day so I can take my hour lunch break to wander the skyways,” said Casey Wojchik, communications coordinator at Faegre Baker Daniels in downtown Minneapolis, “All of us desk-job people need to get out and move around.”

• Healthier eating habits. Some workers are eating several small meals a day, as recommended by numerous dietary studies. Others are shying away from greasy, fried fast food by bringing their own meals from home.

• Not wanting to interrupt the workflow. “I am project-oriented, so I don’t like to take a break in the middle of something just to eat,” said Lindsey Young, program manager of the ALPHA (tutoring) Center at University of Northwestern in St. Paul. “I also find that sitting in a break room to eat is monotonous and, quite honestly, a waste of time.”

Don’t be a lunch martyr

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