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How to take better breaks at work

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How to take better breaks at work

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For example, the “daily routines of CEOs” often include things like waking up at 4 am, working on the weekend, and even being “strategic about how often you go to the bathroom.” To tackle an ever-increasing workload, many workers choose to grind through, skip lunch, and stay after hours.

But the cost of being always-on (and doing it well!) is high. More than half of employees (59%) report feeling burnout according to a recent survey. Engagement has taken the opposite turn and is declining among the U.S. workers. Alarmingly, both high burnout and low engagement rates are associated with hindered performance. What can we do to address our declining well-being while maintaining performance?

Pausing work rather than pushing through might help with both aspects. Intrigued by two competing narratives — one focused on working more as an indicator of performance and the other on having regular respites to protect well-being — as well as mixed (and sometimes even conflicting) findings of individual studies on these topics, our team conducted a systematic review of existing research on workplace breaks.

In analyzing more than 80 studies, we (with our colleagues Zahra Premji, Timothy Wingate, Connie Deng, Lisa Bélanger, and Nick Turner) confirmed that pausing work throughout the day can improve well-being and also help with getting more work done. Counter to the popular narrative of working long work hours, our research suggests that taking breaks within work hours not only does not detract from performance, but can help boost it.

Why is taking breaks is beneficial for well-being and performance?
Like batteries that need to be recharged, we all have a limited pool of physical and psychological resources. When our batteries run low, we feel depleted, exhausted, and stressed out.

Pushing through work when very little energy is left in the tank puts a strain on well-being and work performance. In extreme cases, nonstop work can lead to a negative spiral: A worker tries to finish tasks despite their depleted state, is unable to do them well and even makes mistakes, resulting in more work and even fewer resources left to tackle those same tasks. This means that the more we work, the less productive and more exhausted we can become. Think about reading the same line for the fifth time, for example, and still not absorbing it.

The good news is that taking breaks can help employees to recharge and short-circuit the negative spiral of exhaustion and decreasing productivity. However, not all breaks are equal in terms of their effects.

What types of breaks are more effective for improving well-being and performance?
Breaks come in many different shapes and forms: exercising, browsing social media, going for a short walk, socializing with others, taking a nap, grabbing lunch, and so on. However, our systematic review shows that not all break types are equally effective. In other words, it matters how to pause work. Here are some common break elements to consider:

Break length and timing
A longer break does not necessarily equate to a better break. Disengaging from work only for a few minutes but on a regular basis (micro-breaks) can be sufficient for preventing exhaustion and boosting performance. For example, workers can take short breaks for snacking, stretching, or simply gazing out of the window. Further, timing of the break matters — shorter breaks are more effective in the morning, while longer breaks are more beneficial in the late afternoon. This is because fatigue worsens over the workday, and we need more break time in the afternoon to recharge.

Location of breaks
The place breaks take place can make a big difference in terms of recovery. Both stretching at a desk and going outside for a short walk seem like very similar break activities, but they might substantially differ in their recharging potential. Our review demonstrates that taking a break at outdoors and enjoying the green space is far better for recharging workers’ resources than simply staying at a desk.

Break activity
Engaging in physical activity during a break is effective for improving both well-being and performance. Exercising is an especially valuable recovery tool for mentally demanding work. However, the positive effects of this break type are short-lived, and employees need to exercise on a regular basis to yield its benefits.

Despite these benefits, exercise is not the most preferred way to spend breaks among employees. Our review shows that browsing social media is the most common break type — almost everyone (97%) report engaging in this activity. However, researchers find that scrolling through social media during work breaks can lead to emotional exhaustion. As a result, people end up with diminished creativity and work engagement instead of replenished resources. As such, this type of break may not be effective for boosting performance.

Furry break companions
One study in our review showed that interactions with a dog can lower levels of cortisol hormone, an objective indicator of stress. More research is needed in this area, as the effects on performance remain unclear. We do, however, have a strong suspicion that spending a break with a furry companion is effective for many employees. Research shows that interactions with pets can substantially boost individuals’ psychological wellbeing, which in turn is strongly linked to performance.

What can managers and organizations do to encourage breaks?
The mere availability of breaks does not guarantee benefits. Workers may not use their breaks in the most efficient ways or take them at all. As decision-makers and role models in organizations, managers are in an important position to encourage effective work breaks. This can be achieved in several ways:

Fostering positive attitudes toward breaks
While employees are generally positive about breaks and report that they are beneficial for performance, this sentiment is not always shared by managers. This can deter people from recharging. Thus, it is critical that managers are informed about the performance-related benefits of work breaks. For example, HR managers can incorporate this information in the company’s wellness training programs.

Organizations can also consider implementing “wellness moments” (akin to safety moments) during which they can share their strategies for taking effective breaks and brainstorm fun break activities. Even hanging posters about the benefits of and best practices in taking breaks in the workplace can go a long way.

Taking breaks themselves
Managers can communicate the importance of taking breaks by taking the most effective types regularly, which employees can mimic. For example, a manager who regularly walks her dog in a nearby park can communicate to her employees that she’ll be stepping away from work for a bit to do so.

Such strategy not only sets a positive example, but also sets clear boundaries around not interrupting breaks. Leading by example will help prevent the possible stigma and guilt associated with taking breaks. It’s promising that more and more organizational leaders are recognizing this and even share their regrets about not taking sufficient time off work.

Scheduling dedicated break times
Our review shows that many employees are unable to take regular breaks, or are dissuaded from doing so because of the stigma; thus, we recommend that managers and organizations schedule dedicated break times. Such break times need to be implemented with care. Rigid break schedules, such as mandating employees stop working only at a certain time and of a predetermined length, reduce employee autonomy and can even have harmful effects on employees.

We recommend offering break periods at a certain length such as one hour a day and leaving when and how often they want to take their breaks at the employee’s discretion. Offering flexible work schedules, innovative workplace break initiatives such as “break tickets” (e.g., giving daily tickets that allows employee to take an hour of their choice off), or providing on-site social or physical activities could be some examples of optimal break scheduling.

Creating spaces for breaks
As we highlighted above, the location of breaks can play an important role in maximizing their benefits. For example, having a small park or indoor green space can communicate the organization’s commitment to facilitating work breaks and enhance the benefits of breaks in relation to employee performance.

To further yield benefits of outdoor breaks, you could also make it an off-leash dog park where employees who enjoy interacting with animals can do so. This can also serve as a recruitment tool as the demand for pet-friendly workplaces is rising, and many companies have already adopted pet-friendly policies.

Organizations with employees working from home can also make use of the spaces available to them by arranging online park meetings where remote workers can join the meeting while walking or sitting at an outdoor space that is convenient to them. Alternatively, they can allocate a “break budget” for employees to create their own break space. For example, employees can buy an indoor plant or a yoga mat.

Employee performance has always been a concern for organizations, and more organizations are making efforts to address employee well-being today. Work breaks as a promising tool to improve both. Organizations need to recognize the importance of breaks and engage in deliberate efforts to facilitate effective breaks.

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