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How leaders can help their teams beat the post-lunch productivity dip

Chris Butsch is a professional speaker who helps companies supercharge engagement, grow leaders, and keep their best people. He is a leading voice on the ROI of workplace happiness. 

It’s 2:21 p.m. You’re staring down at the remnants of a burrito and half a cup of coffee that’s quickly cooling to room temperature. Emails, calls, and crises continue to roll in, but so does that post-lunch drowsiness. Worse still, you notice the warm blanket of the “post-lunch dip” creeping over the office, lulling your team into a state of lethargy and low productivity.

The period between 1-4 p.m is, in effect, the Bermuda Triangle of productivity, where hours and output mysteriously disappear. 

As Fred W. Turek, the Director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University, told HuffPost, “Studies have shown a decrease in cognition, increase in fatigue over 24 hours―with the big period occurring in the hours from about midnight to 6 a.m.―but a secondary peak in the period coinciding from about 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.”

You may be tempted to reach for that lukewarm cup of coffee, but part of you knows it won’t really help. So what will? What causes the post-lunch dip, and how can you and your team escape the Bermuda Triangle of work productivity?

Why the post-lunch dip occurs

There are two reasons why the post-lunch dip occurs.

We overeat at lunch.

Stress-eating, large portions, or simply delicious food are all reasons we might overindulge. This has a drastic impact on our post-lunch energy. When we overeat, especially carb-heavy foods or red meat, our bodies reallocate blood from the brain to the stomach to support digestion. Low on blood and nutrients, our brains start to underperform. Memory, problem-solving, and even motor skills suffer.  

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In The Mindful Diet, researchers from Duke Integrative Medicine describe how our stomachs are designed to be only 80 percent full of food; the other 20 percent is reserved for water and gas. This explains why the Japanese work so effectively in the afternoons; they follow a Confucian eating code called hara hachi bun me, or “belly 80 percent full.”

We’re naturally wired to nap.

Dr. Turek noted the post-lunch dip can occur even if you don’t eat lunch. This may be because we’re wired to take an afternoon nap. According to the New York Times, a 1986 study found that subjects who slept in a time-free environment consistently felt the urge to nap in the afternoon.

A further 30 years of research into the subject has led to a surprising consensus: the midafternoon nap—something we’ve suppressed in Western work culture—is actually part of our circadian rhythms.

3 strategies for beating the post-lunch dip

The post-lunch productivity dip is caused by eating past 80 percent stomach fullness as well as our biology driving us to take mid-afternoon naps. So what concrete steps can you take to help yourself and your team avoid the dip and win back countless productivity hours?

1. Ban “working lunches” and encourage longer lunch breaks.

A poll of 800 workers found that workplace lunch breaks have slipped from 33 minutes in 2012 to just 22 minutes in 2018. Also, 20 percent of people eat at their desk. We’re scarfing down lunch thinking it’ll make us more productive when we know the exact opposite is true.

Lead by example: Take 45 minutes to slowly eat and enjoy your meal. Help your team resist stress-eating by banning meetings over lunch, i.e. “working lunches,” and encourage your team to step away from their desks and to socialize with others while they eat. Lunch should be considered a time to pause and reenergize.

2. Stop eating until you’re full; eat until you’re no longer hungry.

That’s the advice of registered dietician Susan Dopart, an advocate of hara hachi bun me. When you and your employees eat less at lunch, you’ll have more energy in the short term, and fewer health issues in the long term.

3. Take walks with your team.

Mild exercise and sunlight stimulate wakefulness, counteracting the brain’s midday sleep signals and pumping the brain with blood and nutrients. Schedule a 2:30-3:00 p.m. meeting and surprise your team by leading them outside for a short walk. Ban the use of cell phones during, and encourage them to just take a few deep breaths, revitalize, and enjoy the sunlight and fresh air.  

The post-lunch dip is a tax on productivity many of us have simply come to accept as an inevitable part of the workday. However, through mindful eating and by getting simple sunlight and exercise, you can skip the post-lunch dip and win back productivity hours every week. No extra bite of a burrito is worth that.   

Chris is a speaker, author, and consultant.

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