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Don’t mess with my ‘al desko’ lunch: Teitel

Every year after the Jewish high holidays my fridge is full of gefilte fish, a pale loaf of poached, ground deboned fish. It’s the kind of ethnic dish that pretty much only those who grew up eating it appreciate, because it doesn’t look or smell remotely appetizing (that’s an understatement). Nevertheless, once a year, I bring a piece of gefilte fish to work with me in a Tupperware container and I eat it for lunch at my desk. God help the souls who sit beside me — or for that matter, fifty feet away from me. And God help my keyboard.

According to a recent article by Ashley O’Neill, vice-president of corporate strategy at real estate group CBRE, in the Globe and Mail, “while eating in isolation has been linked to stress and overeating, and obnoxious smells are known to distract, it’s the unwanted crumbs left sitting on the desk and in the equipment that cause bacteria to grow. In fact, countless studies have shown most keyboards to have more bacteria than toilet bowls. A truly delicious stat to contemplate while you tuck into your egg-salad sandwich.”

(Or your leftover fish loaf.)

Needless to say, O’Neill is not a fan of office employees eating lunch at their desks — or “dining al desko,” as she calls it. Not only is the practice unhygienic, it’s anti-social. This is why CBRE decided recently to ban the desk lunch at its revamped offices.

The company’s new policy, writes O’Neill, “prohibits employees from eating at their desks in the interest of promoting physical and mental well-being in the workplace. It’s not meant to be restrictive; rather, it’s about creating an engaged environment where employees are encouraged to connect with colleagues and share ideas over a meal.” CBRE recommends that employees eat in the company’s in-house café instead.

For somebody who would like nothing more than to eat her gefilte fish al desko, in peace, such a policy sounds like a nightmare. Not to mention, more than a little WASP-y. After all, the foods you can smell from far and wide in an office tend to be ethnic foods. People don’t typically cover their noses and say pee-yew when a desk mate is eating a ham sandwich or a pesto pasta salad. They say pee-yew when the desk-fare around them skews “exotic”: curry, falafel, noodles etc. (Pizza, however, is the great unifier: nobody resents the smell of pizza.)

But more than WASP-y, policies like this are creepily intrusive.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do today, I’m just gonna eat at my desk” isn’t necessarily a statement indicating that companies need to give their employees longer breaks. Rather, it’s often a cover for social anxiety or simply an excuse to be alone. It’s an excuse, in other words, to avoid precisely the kind of manufactured office camaraderie CBRE is promoting in the name of “wellness.”

Wellness: this seems to be something corporations care a lot about these days. Many companies now take a vested and vocal interest in their employees’ physical and mental health, not necessarily by offering robust benefits, but by remoulding — or, in a sense, gentrifying — the culture in the office until everybody is eating whole wheat chicken wraps in the refurbished cafeteria before heading over to the office gym for a CrossFit session led by the CFO.

(I used to work for a magazine owned by a major corporation so obsessed with employee wellness there was, for a time, a sign in the cafeteria suggesting we opt for mustard on our sandwiches instead of mayo.)

Some people appreciate the growing trend of Silicon Valley-inspired corporate wellness because it’s seemingly progressive. It’s nice going to work and having a place to take a nap, a full kitchen, a corner for your dog to curl up in, a gym. But is the trade-off — i.e. the rapidly eroding boundary between work life and home life — really worth it?

Corporate wellness initiatives also make you wonder: does workplace health obsession bleed into hiring and firing practices? Research abounds about workplace prejudice against fat people, old people, people with chronic pain and disabilities. It’s not an inherently bad thing that companies want to keep us healthy, because being healthy is not just good for their bottom line, it’s good for us, period. But what happens when we fail to conform to the health culture where we work? What happens if we keep eating at our desks and declining the boss’s repeated offer to participate in the company triathlon? Will employees with love handles who gorge on smelly, carb-heavy foods at their laptops fall out of favour with management because they’re a living, chewing embodiment of the old way of working?

Maybe not. But just in case, I’ll continue to stage my own annual, pungent protest against the new health order, with a piece of two-day-old gefilte fish, al Desko.