Socializing with co-workers over lunch may not be the best way for employees to unwind during the day, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management discovered that working through lunch might not be as bad as once thought, especially when employees choose to do so without being pressured into it.

"We found that a critical element was having the freedom to choose whether to do it or not," said John Trougakos, an associate professor and co-author of the study. "The autonomy aspect helps to offset what we had traditionally thought was not a good way to spend break time."

As part of the study, researchers surveyed employees on what they had done during their lunch breaks over a 10-day period. They then followed up with the participants' co-workers to report how tired their colleagues appeared by the end of each workday.

The authors found that while working through lunch did result in employees appearing more tired, the effect was reduced when employees felt it was their decision.

The study revealed that socializing also led to higher levels of fatigue, which researchers attribute to whether or not workers feel free to decide if they want to socialize and who they're socializing with. Relaxing activities during lunch, freely chosen by workers, led to the least amount of reported fatigue at the end of the day.

Trougakos said while many might assume lunchtime socializing is a good way for employees to relax, that's not necessarily the case if they mingle with other employees in the company cafeteria or if the boss is around. In those instances, Trougakos said conversations may be about work, and employees may be more careful about what they say and the impression they make with their colleagues.

"You're hanging out with people who you can't necessarily kick back and be yourself with," Trougakos said.

Regardless of how it is achieved, researchers believe organizations that don't provide opportunities for their workers to recover from work during the day risk lower employee effectiveness and productivity, leading to burnout, absenteeism and higher staff turnover.

The study, co-authored by University of Toronto Ph.D. student Bonnie Cheng, and professors Ivona Hideg of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, and Daniel Beal of the University of Texas-San Antonio, is scheduled to be published in the Academy of Magement Journal.

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