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Lunch: An Endangered Privilege in Australia

Discover how the nation’s break laws stack up against others and how it can change for the better

In the digital age, it can feel like the world has gotten itself in a bleeding hurry, where success is often measured by what you can do in the least amount of time possible. But it turns out there is a lot of truth in how good things take time, sleep and food included. Lunch, or a meal break, was designed so employees could unplug and unwind midway through the workday. Yet more and more employees are either working through lunch or staying connected with work when they’re supposed to be on break.

So how does Australia’s meal break fare against other countries around the world?

Lunch break duration by country

In 2017, TSheets by QuickBooks commissioned Pollfish to survey 500 Australian workers about their lunch or meal break.* We found the privilege is disappearing into more work, as employees seem to believe they can get more done by skipping rest and powering through. What types of breaks are provisioned under the Fair Work Act or National Employment Standards? If so, for how long? And do employees even know about the consequences of working through lunch? Read on to find out.

The age of ‘al desko’

Added to the Oxford dictionary in 2014, there is little cheer to be found with this portmanteau. Despite endless scientific data showing eating at one’s desk or workstation is detrimental to productivity and creativity, our data reveals that it is still a common practice.

How employees use their break

Rest breaks, lunch or meal breaks and breaks between shifts

It is important to note there are different types of breaks. According to Fair Work, a rest break allows “an employee to rest for a short period of time during work hours”. These breaks can also be referred to as ‘crib breaks’, ‘rest pauses’ or ‘tea breaks’.

A meal break is a “longer period of uninterrupted rest that allows the employee to eat a meal”.

Breaks between shifts refers to the time off between the end of one shift and the start of another, where the provisions are typically industry-, award- and agreement-specific.

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The work never ends

When asked why they work through lunch, 75% of respondents feel chained to their desks because there is simply too much work to do and too few staff members to share the burden. Other responses include the need to brown nose and feeling guilty. Some even suggested working through lunch was a result of their organisation’s culture.

Reasons for working through breaks

When asked about the frequency of requests to work through lunch per week, almost a quarter of employees are asked daily, while another 45% are asked between two, three and four times weekly or several times per month. About 1 in 10 have either rarely or never received such a request.

“Am I entitled or required to take a lunch break?”

Yes and no. Many entitlements are provided for and insisted upon under the National Employment Standards, but a meal break is not one of them. Daily breaks, however, are provisioned under most modern awards and enterprise agreements. The standard is employees who work more than five hours in a day are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break.

For employees who do not fall under any modern award or agreement, there is no statutory obligation on the employer’s part to provide this term as it is. This was reflected in our survey, with almost half of the respondents taking 30-minute lunches, while 1 in 10 gets to enjoy a full hour and a small percentage gets none.

Average duration of breaks

Our data also found while 62.5% of respondents are certain they are entitled to a meal break entitlement. 10.4% are not sure, while 27.1% do not have a set time for their lunch or meal breaks.

Always refer to the Fair Work Ombudsman to learn about the applicable breaks for your industry.

A lot of guesswork sans technology

Even though a recent survey found Aussie entrepreneurs are tech-savvy, traces of technology were starkly missing when we asked respondents if and how they’re tracking their breaks and working hours.

Time tracking methods

But don’t we know better?

We also asked the respondents what they thought about skipping lunch.

  • 50% agree skipping a proper lunch or meal break makes them less productive
  • 20% state it makes them more productive
  • 30% claim skipping has zero effect on productivity

Why lunch matters

The Australian Institute found lunch breaks make an employee’s day more enjoyable, which leads to a happier and more productive workplace. Taking breaks, even micro ones, can help to recharge one’s brain, relieve stress, increase energy levels and help with digestion, blood pressure and even sleep.

And similar to the study TSheets by QuickBooks conducted on the nation’s annual leave, having the right system in place to facilitate and track this is key. From a manual timesheet to a completely automated timesheet app solution that can be customised to track time, send out alerts or auto start and end when employees go on or come back from breaks, the message here is simple: No employee should be all work and no play.

Employers are ultimately responsible for their employees’ well-being and safety. Ensuring employees have adequate breaks to control risks and relieve fatigue can only benefit the business in the end.

*Methodology: Sample: 500 employees throughout Australia were selected and surveyed by PollFish in November 2017. TSheets by QuickBooks designed and paid for the survey, but the respondents were not connected to TSheets, and the responses were anonymous. For more information and media inquiries, please contact media [at] tsheets.com.

Sources for lunch break duration by country include: Greece, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, US, Spain, and Sweden.