Sunday, November 10, 2013

Zoning out after dining out at work

For years, I took a peanut butter sandwich to work every day for lunch, and I ate it alone. A PB sandwich was particularly easy to hold with one hand while I kept on grading papers and preparing labs or lessons. I chose that route so I could get home at a decent hour. I would've eaten dog food, or nothing, to accomplish that.

I wasn't fast enough

The only time I've ever dined out on workdays was at a high-pressure copy-editing job that I was offered on a temporary basis. I'd never done any copy-editing at all, so they hired me for a 2-week trial to test my speed and accuracy. Everyone else in the office went out-to-lunch together so I went with them. It turned out I flunked the trial; I didn't do the required tasks fast enough. Now, after reading a recent paper on the mental effects of dining out at work, I'm wondering if I should've kept to my solo peanut-butter-sandwich routine during the trial job. I probably would've done better. Although I wouldn't want the job now, it might've been nice to have had the option.

Social lunch or solo lunch?

So, how does eating out with co-workers affect one's after-lunch mental state? Researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University tested the cognition and mood of workers who dined alone in an office versus workers who dined out in a social group. They published their findings in PLOS ONE, an open-access peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science. Their findings are complicated, but the gist of the study is pretty simple. Dining out socially had cognitive and emotional effects, as compared to eating solo in-office. Some effects were good, but most were not!

Eating out at work impairs performance

A social meal with co-workers at a restaurant led to a calmer, more relaxed state after the meal, and a more positive mood. Nice, and not surprising. But this more relaxed and "less wakeful state" seemed to reduce "cognitive control on the performance level" for a while after returning to work. The social meal also reduced cognitive control related to "error monitoring processes." Hmm. I can think of categories of workers whom I might want to be in full possession of their error-monitoring processes. Medical personnel? Air-traffic controllers? An accountant doing my tax return? A techie fixing my computer? A clerk in a billing office? A truck driver? It's actually more challenging to think of a job where cognitive control and errors don't matter.

Could improve creativity

On the bright side, the researchers suggested that a social restaurant meal during the work day could be beneficial in situations where "social harmony or creativity is desired." I can see that. Discussing business deals, collaboration and professional networking certainly could benefit from a socially relaxing meal. Or work situations that require a defusing of stress at midday might benefit, I suppose.

So, what should we take from this study? The authors suggest that their findings might be relevant in designing specific meal situations for restaurants at "schools, universities, factories, hospitals, military, correctional institutions, or holiday resorts, depending on the overarching goal of these institutions...Different meal situations may be optimal if the aim is cognitive control and exactness or if well-being and recreation is desired." Well, yes...although the authors don't specify how these meal situations would vary.

PB sandwich works for me

For me, the solo peanut-butter sandwich routine has worked well. Not only does it save time, it probably has helped me focus and work more efficiently too. Maybe in a grumpier mood....but getting home earlier fixes that.