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Bring back the lunch break: improving the work environment

After the challenges of lockdowns, work-from-home mandates and social distancing, we've got a new appreciation for physical freedom. And for some, that appreciation is even more acute.

Dr Gregor H Mews, who lectures in urban design and planning for community wellbeing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, explains that, "During the pandemic, spatial inequalities became substantially amplified. That means some people had access to the outdoors and were able to do things to maintain their health, but others did not."

No matter which category we fell into over the past few years, most of us are eager to break out of our now overfamiliar four walls, have more social experiences and reignite our sense of adventure - even in the more mundane aspects of our lives. 

Getting back into the usual work environment is definitely part of slowly rediscovering spaces that we have previously taken for granted. 

From window shopping on our lunch break to a walk through the park on the route from the tram stop, there are many moments in our daily 'going to work' routines that deserve heightened appreciation.

Bathe in the forest to soothe your senses

"There are a lot of studies that confirm the health benefits of getting outside, value of green infrastructure and having close contact to natural environments around," says Mews.

In fact, research tells us that spending just 20 minutes in an urban park on our lunch break will improve our general wellbeing - you don't even need to exercise to get the benefits! 

The positive effects of getting outside and into nature come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or 'forest bathing'. 

The physiological and psychological exercise emerged in the 1980s as an antidote to tech-related burnout and to preserve Japan's leafy land. 

One study of participants in Japan found a walk in the forest lowered stress hormone concentrations by more than 15%, the average pulse by almost 4% and blood pressure by over 2%.

What better reason to take your lunch outside into the parks around your office?

Share lunch and fill your social cup

Culture and team connection has taken a real hit over the last few years. There are only so many virtual trivia nights you can endure, after all. 

Mews says, "We're a social species. We like to be a part of the community."

"I think the pandemic has provided the opportunity to reflect on that, what it means to be part of a community in the workplace."

"Our bonds need to be deeply nurtured beyond artificial contact on Zoom."

With the return to the office, we're able to tap into a whole bunch of incidental culture bolstering activities. One of which is sharing lunch - who knew grabbing sushi with a colleague, once a mundane occurrence, could be so exciting!

Rather than eating at your desk during your lunch break (it's terrible for you anyway), grab your food and a couple of work friends to enjoy your office surroundings. Not only will you be tapping into the aforementioned health and wellbeing benefits, but you'll also be filling up your social cup. 

Mews underscores that public green spaces in our cities are designed precisely for us to use for purposes such as this: "That's what they're there for!"

So go on, get out there!

Get a fresh perspective

Intuitively many of us know that a change of scenery and some movement can get us over a creative rut or help us solve a complex problem. It turns out your intuition is correct; research found that people immersed in a natural setting increased their creative problem-solving ability by 50%. 

It's not just nature that helps; Stanford research found that walking helps too - the study found that walking increased creative output by 60%. 

Clever leaders are tapping into the benefits of walking. The CEOs of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, make walking a priority - just as Freud, Darwin and Beethoven did in their days. 

So why not go for the double and take your walk into nature during your lunch break to access even more benefits?

4 steps towards an improved work environment

While getting up from your desk and out of the office is, to some degree, personal responsibility, there are certain things organisations can do to encourage more time spent away from the screen.

1. Get leaders on board

There is nothing more potent than seeing behaviour modelled by a leader. If an employee's manager (better yet, the CEO) leaves their desk each day for a lunchtime stroll, it's much more likely that the employee will feel comfortable doing the same.  

2. Schedule it in

Encourage everyone in the office to block out lunch in their calendar. And if there has to be a meeting, make it over a nasi goreng in the park downstairs. 

3. Plan for lunch break events

The best way to ensure people aren't eating at their desks? Plan something informational, educational or simply fun for them to enjoy on their lunch break. People will not only benefit from getting out from behind a screen but social interaction is linked with greater team trust. 

Lunchtime networking events are also very inclusive for those who can't attend after work occasions due to children, caregiving or other commitments. 

4. Design for a break

When asked what the future workplace looks like, Mews described a luxury resort: concierge desk, coffee and snack amenities and lots of natural light. Notably, he also mentioned the future workplace would include space designed for "inside-outside nature connection" - where staff can enjoy a little nature in pleasant micro-climates as they take their lunch break. 

Soak up the benefits

The last few years have been tough. But they've also made us appreciate many of the mundane, everyday things we previously took for granted - like the time spent with work friends in the parks and other green spaces on our lunch break. 

With this newfound sense of appreciation as we venture back into our offices, let us delight in the ordinary and soak up the benefits of our office surroundings.

Find out more about creating a Destination Workplace.

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