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Due to heavy energy consumption of things I do outside of the office, I generally eat 5-7 meals (depending on what you call a meal) spread throughout the day. Typically, maybe three of these fall during the workday.

Over the years I've tried various ways to fit this into a typical working day starting at 8-9, and ending sometime between 5-7. I hate eating at my desk, because it's messy, annoys my colleagues, and let's face it nobody gets any real work done while eating so why lie to the world. Therefore, I tend to just take 5-10 minute breaks. However, I'm not entirely sure how this is perceived by my coworkers and managers. Maybe I'm too self-conscious but I get the feeling they may see me as "the guy who keeps taking breaks to stuff his face even though we gave him an hour lunch break".

What's the best way to deal with this? Generally speaking, if I have a cool boss I just tell him and it's OK, but occasionally you get an old-fashioned "yer not one of them brown-rice eatin' types are ya son?" sort of person. Now I can't really explain reasons to this kind of person, so how can I deal with it?

NOTE: Yes, I know that there are varying opinions on whether or not eating every 3 hours is actually beneficial. Please, please, please, do not start a discussion on diet and fitness.

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    Do co-workers have smoke breaks? I'd expect the etiquette of this would be very similar. – Journeyman Geek Jul 21 '14 at 0:45
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    As long as you check with the boss and the boss says it's OK, why obsess over what what your coworkers think? You step away from your desk, have your mini-meal and come back to your desk. Big deal. If you were looking for a way to make ytourself unhappy, your strategy of worrying about what they think is just what the doctor ordered. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 21 '14 at 1:25
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    Comments removed. Remember that one of our rules is be nice. If you can't keep it constructive and professional, don't post it. – Monica Cellio Jul 22 '14 at 3:20
  • If you're salaried/ professional you should be allowed just to manage this yourself. I do this too, just take a few minutes to prepare a protein shake of whatever in the kitchen and eat at my desk. – Andy Apr 9 '15 at 0:04
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I agree with the points that it has a lot to do with what your job is, and overall the bottom line is that you should get some sort of agreement with your manager, because his perception will have the most impact on your career.

I have few coworkers who are runners, who have a similar state in that they are constantly eating. Also my diabetic family eat snacks constantly, as it helps regulate the bloodstream - so I can think of cases both critically health related and by choice where this comes up more often that you may think or may notice.

Success points that I've seen:

  • Know what it means to be doing your job and being part of your team and meet the obligations. If you staff a phone line, make sure it's covered and you are taking your share, if you do individual work make sure it gets done on time, if you have meetings, make sure you are on time.

  • If you have to, eat while working. Many offices I work in pretty much expect back to back to back meetings in certain key roles. If this is the case, or other physical presence requiring work is the case, then you've got to eat at least some of the meals at your desk, or at the meeting. When I have do this in meetings, I usually apologize, and point out that we are on meeting number X of my 8-10 meeting day, so someone had to get the joy of watching me eat.

  • If you can eat in the break area, and not at your desk - then make it quick. It's true that 5-15 minutes 4 times a day isn't fundamentally different than a 20-60 minute lunch - but if you get distracted by coworkers who chat with you when you are on a break, it's easy to loose time you didn't notice. I find at least in the US that people have real problems with "15 minutes" as an increment - it's not unusual to find a 10/15 minute break turn into 20 or a half hour. People will notice the difference between some guy who seems to be constantly chatting and taking a break, and a guy who dashes over to a break room eats a quick snack/meal and comes right back.

I find that offices vary in their uptightness. Some are big on "keep stuff that smells like food in the break room" while others are more of the opinion that "a sign of work devotion is eating at your desk". Similarly, most places I've worked had the status quo that if you were in a meeting over lunch, then bringing your lunch was OK, and if you had a meeting other times, having a snack was OK (and snacks can be anything from a pretty serious protein and carb, to a quick piece of fruit... you can pack a lot of calories into something looks like a "snack"! :)). But other places won't allow this if you meet with a sufficiently high ranking person. So a big key here is to know the norms where you work and know where you can bend them.

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I think @Journeyman Geek nailed it in a comment -- this is no different (in terms of business impact) from a smoke break.

As for your boss, instead of 1 60 minute break you're taking 6 10 minute breaks.

As you pointed out in your question, some bosses will get it & some won't. The ones that won't/don't get it are ones you shouldn't work for.

It might help if you called them "snacks" or "it's just an apple" or whatever. Calling them "meals" might cause a perception problem.

  • It's not just an apple, one of my small meals can be bigger than the average person's regular meal. – CaptainCodeman Jul 21 '14 at 20:47
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    I disagree with this answer, mainly because of the commonly-accepted spool-up time required for programming. Eating a meal is just as expensive as any other context switch. It's easy for a boss to accept one context switch (and its associated loss of productivity) per day, but multiply that by 6, and there may be a problem. – Garrison Neely Jul 21 '14 at 20:51
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    If it takes you as long to eat one of those meals as others take to eat an average meal, you'd better plan on working straight through every one of them rather than taking a break, or working extended hours in lieu thereof, since there's no way that wouldn't cut into your productivity. – keshlam Jul 21 '14 at 20:58
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    @GarrisonNeely, I'd be surprised if most programmers (or any other workers) are only context-switching once per day. If the problem is the loss of focus and the time it takes to spool back up, then coffee, smoke, or bathroom breaks have the same effect, not to mention interruptions from phones, email, or coworkers. – Kelly Tessena Keck Dec 19 '14 at 14:42
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It will depend on the type of job you have and the required staffing of that job.

I have worked at locations where a position must be staffed 100% of the time, and the breaks and meals are regulated. If you step away from the position many more times compared to the rest of your co-workers, their perception of you will be as not being a team player. Every time you leave the desk somebody has to cover for you, or the workplace has to come to a halt.

It might be beneficial to call them snacks, but you also have to be willing to eat them at your desk if they are snacks. If they involve heating of leftovers, or cooking of food, nobody will believe that you can keep to the standard 30 or 60 minutes that everybody else has.

Calling them the equivalent of smoke break might be more problematic. Smoke breaks are being highly discouraged in many places due to the disruptions they cause. The round trip to the designated smoking area can add 10 to 15 minutes to the process.

If your workplace doesn't have tight regulations, why bother asking? If they are really small snacks, just eat them ask your desk. Act the same way as somebody who can't get through the workday without visiting the vending machine, the coffee machine, or the soda machine 3 or 4 times a day.

5

I would suggest sitting down with your manager and detailing your requirements to see if this is acceptable within the work place.

The answer that you're going to get largely depends on where you live. For example, let's look at the United States labour laws:

However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked.

...

Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.

In this case, the company then has a sticky situation about what is and is not a paid break. Smoke breaks are generally permitted as 2x15 minute blocks in many workplaces, though some are going to be more relaxed about that than others.

In this case your 60 minute unpaid meal becomes 6x10 minute paid breaks. Payroll might not like this change.

On top of this, many states have some form of meal break requirement as well, for example California shows:

½ hour, after 5 hours, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less and there is mutual employer/employee consent to waive meal period.

Employers tend to be pretty strict about state/federal laws in order to cover their asses regardless of how good of an employee you may be. That way an employee will have a much tougher case in court when they try to say "they never gave me a lunch break"

So just keep in mind that depending on where you live, you may still be required to have at least a half hour period and additional paid breaks.

I would definitely sit down with your manager to discuss your requirements and see how you can work that out within the confines of your local labor laws and company policy. Though please keep in mind that some employers may "get away" with simply turning a blind eye to what you're doing and not officially allow it.

2

As @JourneymanGeek said, this is something to work out with your immediate manager.

If this isn't reducing the number of hours you actually spend working, and isn't getting in the way of your doing your job, most bosses aren't going to particularly care.

If you're taking enough cumulative time for meals that it's cutting into your work hours and/or productivity, that IS something that they should care about, and you have to work with them to find a compromise that lets you function at the level the company expects of you. Reduce the breaks, or be in the office longer hours to make up for any lost time, or shift to another task if this is disrupting other folks' work or customer service or otherwise not compatible with your current assignment...

Again, talk to your manager to determine how much freedom you have. If you're delivering what the business expects of you, they can work with you even if it isn't something covered by normal company policy. If you can't, that's a very different kettle of worms.

2

Your Coworkers' Perception

You mention that your coworkers might be seeing you as taking too many breaks, but it might also be purely your own self-consciousness. So, I would start there. Some questions to ask yourself to see if it's an issue:

  • Do you have any evidence that people are paying attention to your breaks? For example, have you gotten comments or dirty looks?
  • Are your breaks really that different from everyone else's in length or number?
  • Are you the only person who regularly snacks at work?

For some context, I worked at one office where two 15-minute breaks a day for coffee, chitchat, and maybe a snack were customary. In other places, taking a break that long that wasn't part of your unpaid lunch would be seen as slacking. Likewise, some office cultures are big on food, with people bringing in food to share, or keeping snacks at their desk, while others not so much.

You mention eating at your desk annoying your colleagues. Again, is this something they've said to you, or just an impression you get? I would avoid this if you know it's bothering or distracting people, especially since you'd rather not anyway.

Possible Solutions

If you find that you do have a perception problem, then you can do some things to address it. The specifics will depend a lot on your office, your diet, and even your status as salaried or hourly.

If you're paid by the hour, then making sure to keep accurate track of any breaks and working extra as needed is important. If you're salaried, it's less so, but you don't necessarily want to be seen getting in at the same time as everyone else, leaving the same time as everyone else, and taking more breaks. By the same token, getting into the office early and/or staying late tends to make people view you as more productive. (It's not necessarily accurate but we're talking about perception.)

As much as you can, try to minimize the effect of your breaks on your coworkers. For example, if Bob usually comes by to ask about the status of XYZ around ten, that might not be the best time for a mini-meal break. Likewise, if all the smokers congregate outside at 9:30, that's probably a great time to go get something to eat.

You can also, as much as your dietary needs allow, pick things that are quick to eat. For example, a shake or smoothie would be quicker than a sit-down meal, and might be something you could have while working or on the way to or from work. I don't know if that's feasible for your specific diet, of course.

Aside from that, anything you can do to be a good coworker will improve your overall perception, which makes people less likely to obsessively track your break time. You want to be known as friendly, helpful, and on top of things, and you don't want to be the guy who leaves a mess in the microwave, or complains about everything, or blows off requests for assistance.

Your Boss's Approval

You mentioned that this is usually only a problem for bosses who don't approve of your eating habits, or, to put it more bluntly, have some stereotypical ideas about how people are "supposed to" eat that are probably related to culture, class, masculinity, and a bunch of other stuff that's outside the scope of a Workplace SE discussion.

In those situations, your best bet is probably to keep any explanation brief and try not to make a big deal out of it. Depending on what activities you're doing outside of work, mentioning them specifically might actually score you points, or it might be viewed as a negative. (I get the impression that those bosses would probably think it was cool if you were, say, training for an Ironman marathon.) So, use your best judgment to determine how much you want to mention.

0

Think about it like this. If you eat quickly (<10 minutes), then you're just having some extra breaks. However, if you have three of these every day, you're saying that you will be breaking 30 minutes a day. That's a problem for everyone, including your boss. Why? Well, you're probably asking to get paid for that time.

If your need to eat multiple times a day is a medical requirement that a doctor can attest to, then you're fine. If it isn't a medical necessity, then you may need to be pragmatic and talk to your boss. If you can lengthen your workday by 30 minutes to accomodate the extra breaks, you should be fine.

Now, to address the whole smoking thing. As a manager who smokes, I do not smoke when I'm "on the clock", and I strongly encourage my employees to do that same. Smoking is largely social, which means folks are gabbing while sucking down on their cancer-candies. If you work at one of those places, you have a valid argument for your multiple daily meals. However, having a valid argument doesn't mean you'll prevail.

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