For most of us, being productive means spending more time working. It seems intuitive that the more time we spend on work tasks, the more we can accomplish. And not surprisingly, popular literature is full of advice on how to maximize work hours. For example, the “daily routine of CEOs” often includes things like waking up at 4 a.m., working on weekends, and even “be strategic about how often you go to the bathroom.” To cope with the increased workload, many workers choose to grind, skip lunch, and stay after hours.
But the cost of being consistent (and doing it well!) is high. More than half of employees (59%) report feeling burned out according to a recent survey from Aflac. The engagement took the opposite turn and is declining among US workers. Alarming, both high burnout and low engagement rates associated with hindered performance. What can we do to address our declining well-being while performance continues?
Stopping work rather than pushing it can help in two aspects. Interested in two competing narratives – one focused on working more as an indicator of performance and the other on having regular breaks to protect well-being – as well as mixed (and sometimes still conflicting) findings of individual studies on these subjects, our team conducted a systematic review of existing research on workplace breaks. Analyzing more than 80 studies, we (along with our colleagues Zahra Premji, Timothy Wingate, Connie Deng, Lisa Bélanger, and Nick Turner) proved that taking a break from work for the day improves well-being and also helps to get more work done. Contrary to the popular narrative of working long hours at work, our research suggests that taking breaks during work hours not only hinders performance, but actually helps improve it.
Why is rest beneficial for health and performance?
Like batteries that need to be recharged, we all have a limited pool of physical and psychological resources. When our batteries run out, we feel exhausted, tired, and stressed.
Pushing through work when there is little energy left in the tank puts a strain on well-being and work performance. In extreme cases, non-stop work can lead to a negative spiral: A worker tries to finish tasks despite their exhausted state, does not do them well and even makes mistakes, which resulting in more work and fewer resources left to solve the same tasks. This means that the more we work, the less productive we are and the more tired we are. Imagine 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 recharge and short-circuit the negative spiral of fatigue and decreased 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 walk, socializing with others, sleeping, eating, and more. However, our systematic review showed that not all types of breaks are equally effective. In other words, it is important how to stop work. Here are some common break elements to consider:
Break duration and timing
A longer break does not necessarily equal a better break. Stopping work for just a few minutes but in a regular way (micro-breaks) can be enough to prevent fatigue and improve performance. For example, workers can take short breaks for snacking, stretching, or just looking out the window. Additionally, the timing of breaks is important — short breaks are more effective in the morning, while longer breaks are more beneficial in the afternoon. This is because fatigue increases during the work day, and we need more time to rest in the afternoon to recharge.
Location of breaks
The breaks in place can make a huge difference in terms of recovery. Both stretching at a desk and going out for a short walk may seem like very similar leisure activities, but they may differ in their recharging potential. Our review shows that taking a break outside and enjoying green space is better for recharging workers’ resources than just sitting at a desk.
Participating in physical activity during rest is effective for improving well-being and performance. Exercise is an especially valuable recovery tool for mentally demanding work. However, the positive effects of this type of rest are short-lived, and employees must exercise regularly to reap its benefits.
Despite these benefits, exercise is not the most preferred way to spend breaks among employees. Our review showed that browsing social media was the most common type of break — almost everyone (97%) reported engaging in this activity. However, researchers found that scrolling through social media during work breaks can lead to emotional exhaustion. Because of this, people will end reduced creativity and work engagement rather than replenished resources. As such, this type of rest may not be effective for improving performance.
Furry break companions
A study our review shows that interacting with a dog can reduce the level of the cortisol hormone, an objective indicator of stress. More research is needed in this area, as the effects on performance remain unclear. We, however, have a strong suspicion that taking a break with a furry companion works for many employees. Research shows that companionship with pets greatly improves the psychological well-being of individuals, which is also closely linked to performance.
What can managers and organizations do to encourage breaks?
Merely being on 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 a key position to encourage effective work breaks. This can be achieved in several ways:
Develop positive attitudes during 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 prevents people from recharging. Thus, it is important that managers are informed about the performance-related benefits of work breaks. For example, HR managers can incorporate this information into company health training programs. Organizations may also consider implementing “wellness moments” (like safety moments) where they can share their strategies for taking effective breaks and brainstorm fun activities to rest. Even hanging posters about the benefits of and best practices for workplace breaks can go a long way.
Managers can communicate the importance of rest by regularly taking the most effective types, which employees can then emulate. For example, a manager who regularly walks his dog in a nearby park may communicate with his employees that he will leave work for a while to do so. Such a strategy not only sets a positive example, but also sets clear boundaries in the environment that do not interfere with breaks. Leading by example can help prevent the potential stigma and guilt associated with rest. This promises to increase the number of leaders in the organization recognizes it and even share their regrets about not taking enough time off work.
Schedule dedicated break times
Our review shows that many employees are unable to take regular breaks, or are prevented from doing so due to stigma; therefore, we recommend that managers and organizations schedule dedicated break times. Such rest periods should be implemented with caution. Rigid rest schedules, such as mandating employees to stop work only at a certain time and for a predetermined length, reduce employee autonomy and may even have detrimental effects on employees. We recommend offering rest periods of a certain length such as one hour a day and leaving when and how often they want to rest at the employee’s discretion. Offering flexible work schedules, innovative workplace break initiatives such as “break tickets” (for example, providing daily tickets that allow employees to take a time off of their choosing), or providing on -site social or physical activities can be some examples of the best rest. scheduling.
Create spaces for breaks
As we highlighted above, the location of the 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 improving the benefits of breaks in relation to employee performance. To provide additional benefits to outdoor breaks, you can also make it an off-leash dog park where employees who enjoy interacting with animals can do so. It can also be a recruiting tool as well the demand for pet-friendly workplaces is on the riseand many companies are already adopting 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 in the an outdoor space convenient to them. On the other hand, they can set aside 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 is always a concern for organizations, and many organizations are trying to address employee well-being today. Work breaks seem like a good tool to improve both. Organizations must recognize the importance of breaks and make deliberate efforts to facilitate effective breaks.