How many times did you eat your lunch alone this week? According to a recent survey, while 68 per cent of working Canadians enjoy eating lunch with their colleagues, two-thirds of us eat lunch alone at least three times during the workweek.

Even worse, almost half (42 per cent) of working Canadians eat lunch alone every workday.

But it wasn’t always this way. Eating alone is not a natural human behaviour, but a learned one that seems to become more prevalent once we enter the work force. When overwhelmed with work, lunch with colleagues can seem like a luxury, but eating alone can have adverse effects.

Research has found that people who eat most meals alone may express feelings of loneliness and social isolation and, what’s more, eating in solitude is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any single factor, other than having a mental illness.

Interestingly, this behaviour of eating alone continues even though working Canadians recognize the workplace benefits that arise as a result of eating with their colleagues, including improved communication with colleagues, stronger relationships with co-workers, increased happiness and job satisfaction – not to mention greater productivity.

The growing recognition of and research into the effects of eating together in the workplace have led some organizations to make eating together a priority. At Google, eating together is now ingrained in employees’ daily lives, whether they are chatting with colleagues over coffee or enjoying lunch together. Loblaw also actively encourages their employees to take the time to eat together.

Here are three tips to help employers kick-start the eat-together movement in their workplace.

DRAW UP A SCHEDULE
One of the biggest barriers to eating together is employees’ workloads – they’re often overwhelmed and consider lunch to be another precious hour for work. To overcome this obstacle, employers should develop a schedule for staff to eat together regularly.

Finding a reasonable rhythm (monthly or weekly is recommended for the most impact) can be very powerful for an organization’s culture. If eating together is regularly scheduled, staff will begin looking forward to it and will book their meetings around it to avoid missing the get-together.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Eating together is important for everyone, senior leaders included. Change in the workplace is most impactful when employees see their employers getting involved, making it particularly critical for senior leaders to participate in the communal lunches.

Doing so will set the tone for the organization’s more junior members, who may be resistant to, or even skeptical of, the change in the workplace culture. Providing the reason behind the change can also help to get buy-in from skeptics.

Some staff will intuitively understand the importance of eating together, but others may be reluctant – understanding the “why” behind the shift in culture can be not only powerful but also persuasive.

SET THE STAGE
If regularly eating together is new for your organization, let employees know how the communal lunchtime will work. Should staff bring their own lunch, or will you host a potluck? Experience shows that potlucks can be effective for developing team culture – colleagues can get to know one another through the food they enjoy cooking and eating.

Kicking off the first few lunches with a simple question for everyone to answer can also help to break the ice, but it is important the question is fairly personal (“What’s everyone’s favourite summertime hobby?”) so that staff can more easily discover what they have in common.

Intimacy is also more likely to happen in groups of four, so consider investing in cruiser tables for colleagues to gather around. Smaller tables can also appeal to the introverts among your staff, who may feel less comfortable speaking in groups.

Finally, employees at organizations where eating together is not yet a priority should also feel empowered to be the change and to champion the eat-together movement in their workplace. Change can occur more organically without senior leaders on board: Find a spot for a communal lunch either in or out of the office, and send a calendar invite to the wider team. We all need to eat, so why not eat together?

– DK Leadership, The Globe and Mail, July 27, 2018