Desk-dining practitioners are so busy chewing on their emails and mounting workload that the traditional lunch break is becoming a thing of the past.
The tuts of long-suffering colleagues enduring the pong of 'al desko' dining. The clack of cheap cutlery on teeth. The inevitable crumbs in the keyboard. All these things embody the effect that always-on culture has had on the humble accountant's lunch break.
“Some days I forget lunchtime is even a thing,” practice owner Ben Steele told Practice Talk last week. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he had a break for lunch. “It used to be a problem and now it is just natural.”
Steele’s lunch situation will be familiar to many accountants. Rather than pulling themselves away from the screen, many practitioners admit to spending their lunch breaks working.
Inbox vs lunchbox
Always-on culture is making it difficult for practitioners to sandwich their lunch between a constant buffet of emails. Avery Martin’s Glenn Martin, like many, uses his break to clear the morning rush of emails. Quite ironically, considering the topic at hand, emails eat up your day.
“Emails are taking over your life,” said Martin, “so I am trying to get into a system where I open them first thing, lunchtime and then at the end of the day. You could spend the whole day on your emails.”
And getting consumed in your work is the reason why AccountingWEB regular and forensic accounting expert David Winch doesn’t stray too far from his desk at lunch. “If I fancy fresh air I'd wander to Starbucks,” he said. “But frequently I don't know what day of the week it is. I work weekends as well so it is all much the same.”
And even good intentions to escape the office are no match for the work treadmill. “The theory is that I go for a walk for 30 minutes at lunchtime,” said Sharon Pocock from Kinder Pocock. “I do eat at my desk or I just don't eat lunch. It's really bad.”
I’ll eat later
Commonly, practitioners would rather sacrifice their lunch than let their work life feed into their home life. With a two-hour door-to-door commute into London, Kay Mind from haysmacintyre works through her lunch to get as much done as she can while in the office.
While Mind admitted that eating lunch at her desk wasn’t necessarily a good thing, it serves a purpose. “More often than not I am bringing in lunch from home so I've got no need to go out,” she said. “But then, I don’t feel so guilty about leaving the office at 5.30pm sharp.”
In theory, the idea of foregoing lunch for a work-free evening is a worthwhile expense. In practice though, those good intentions don’t always work out.
Recent research from the accounting wellbeing charity CABA found that 38% of chartered accountants check their emails outside work hours every day, while 33% even check during their annual leave or if they’re off sick.
Ben Steele could relate to this scenario. “I'm checking emails right up until my head hits the pillow - and sometimes as my head is on the pillow.”
Although Kay Mind may continue working on the train home, missing lunch means her phone is left at the door.
Diet lunch break: A taste of freedom
For those that do escape the office on their lunch, the work fug still lingers and compresses their break. In fact, 70% of UK workers take less than an hour for lunch, according to job recruitment site Glassdoor, with 25% cutting short their lunch break out of fear of falling behind in their work.
Stephanie Parker from haysmacintyre, for example, always makes sure she leaves the building to see the sky but after 20 minutes she’s back at the desk, saying: “It's important to get as much done in the working day as possible.”
Alison Edwards, too, would break away from her desk dining but it’s often on work business. “Quite often I have a pile of stuff that needs to go to the post office sitting on one of the window sills and I use that as an excuse to force me to get out of the office,” said the founder of Simply Balanced Solutions.
No lunch starves productivity
There is an irony in accountants using their lunch break to be productive. Come the afternoon, their productivity often drains away. It’s something Alex Bottom from Hillier Hopkins recognises. “I genuinely think switching off and not trying to work during that lunch hour makes you more focused when you are working.
“It's nice to sit down and take half an hour as a minimum where you're not actually trying to multitask and eat at the same time.”
Bottom jokes that his approach to his lunch is something akin from yesteryear, however. “I'm probably like a man from the 1950s trapped in the 2010s,” he said. “I buy my lunch out, so I pop out and get that. I'm still old-fashioned enough to have a newspaper and I read the news.”
Sophie Parkhouse from Albert Goodman also makes sure she escapes the office during her lunch break – even if it’s to grab a coffee and get some fresh air. “I recognise I am more productive if I've done so,” she explained. “Occasionally, particularly in the summer months, I'll bring my gym kit, go to the park and do a quick 20-minute workout.”
According to recent research, the smell of microwaved fish wafting around the office and truncated lunchbreaks could be blamed on the fact that accountants hit their productivity stride shortly before lunch at 11am, as discussed by tax expert Rhys Jones on the latest No Accounting for Taste podcast.
No lunch if you have an appetite for growth
The accountants we’ve spoken with as part of our Practice Talk feature who skip lunch are practice owners, senior management or partners, and are naturally hungry for practice growth.
While working through your lunch is by no means a preference for the interviewees, it can be argued that it's more productive than the popular alternatives also featured on the Glassdoor survey. 28% of workers using their lunch hour to browse the internet or 20% who are still glued to their monitor or smartphone scrolling social media.
But, importantly, the partners and practice owners would not dish out the same punishment to their employees.
“All the team have lunches and I encourage them to get out and about,” said Ben Steele. “I've set them up a cool little space in the office where there is a room with a TV on the wall, Netflix and that sort of thing for them to chill out on their lunch breaks.”
And while Ben Steele often goes without lunch, he does make the most of it when he can. “Some days when it is quieter and my workload isn't as bad, I will have a nice lunch and spend an hour down at the pub near the firm.”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.