Taking breaks improves well-being and performance, but very few workers are making the most of these moments. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Zhanna Lyubykh and Duygu Biricik Gulseren explain how to take better breaks and offer four tips to help leaders encourage staff to take them — the right way.
Zhanna Lyubykh is an assistant professor of management and organizations studies at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. Duygu Biricik Gulseren is an assistant professor at the School of Human Resources Management at York University.
When workers have very little energy left in their tank, their well-being and work performance typically suffer. In severe cases, nonstop work can result in a negative spiral.
Workers attempting to finish tasks at low energy levels are prone to mistakes and lower-quality output, Lyubykh and Gulseren explain.
"This means that the more we work, the less productive and more exhausted we can become," they note.
Fortunately, regular breaks can help workers recharge. However, "not all breaks are equal in terms of their effects," the authors write.
In a systematic review of over 80 studies, the authors pinpointed "best practices for making the most of time away from our tasks, including where, when, and how." According to Lyubykh and Gulseren, workers should consider four things to make the most of their breaks:
1. Length and time
When taking breaks, longer does not always equal better. "Disengaging from work only for a few minutes but on a regular basis (micro-breaks) can be sufficient for preventing exhaustion and boosting performance," Lyubykh and Gulseren write.
Timing also matters — while shorter breaks are more effective in the morning, longer breaks are more effective later in the afternoon. "This is because fatigue worsens over the workday, and we need more break time in the afternoon to recharge," they note.
Where you take breaks can make a significant difference in your ability to recharge and recover. In the review, the authors found that taking breaks outside in green space is much more effective than simply taking a break at your desk.
While most employees (97%) report scrolling social media during their breaks, the authors note that this "can lead to emotional exhaustion." Instead, they suggest engaging in physical activity during breaks, noting that this is "an especially valuable recovery tool for mentally demanding work."
4. Interactions with pets
According to Lyubykh and Gulseren, "[r]esearch shows that interactions with pets can substantially boost individuals' psychological wellbeing, which in turn is strongly linked to performance."
Many workers are not using their breaks efficiently — or taking them at all.
"As decision-makers and role models in organizations, managers are in an important position to encourage effective work breaks," the authors write. According to Lyubykh and Gulseren, this can be achieved in four ways:
1. Having a positive attitude about breaks
Typically, employees maintain a positive attitude about breaks, and acknowledge their benefits. However, managers do not always share this sentiment.
"This can deter people from recharging," the authors note. "Thus, it is critical that managers are informed about the performance-related benefits of work breaks."
2. Taking breaks
To convey the importance of taking breaks, managers should regularly take effective breaks themselves — a pattern employees can mimic. According to the authors, this "strategy not only sets a positive example, but also sets clear boundaries around not interrupting breaks."
3. Scheduling breaks
The authors' review found that many employees feel discouraged from taking breaks because of the stigma. To encourage employees to take breaks, they recommend leaders schedule dedicated break times.
4. Establishing spaces for breaks
Because the location of breaks can play an important part in boosting their benefits, organizations should establish dedicated spaces for them.
Organizations can create a small park or indoor green space to "communicate the organization's commitment to facilitating work breaks and enhance the benefits of breaks in relation to employee performance," the authors write.
For remote workers, companies can arrange online park meetings where they can join while walking or sitting at an outdoor space of their choosing. They can also allocate a "break budget" for workers to establish their own break space.
"Employee performance has always been a concern for organizations, and more organizations are making efforts to address employee well-being today. Work breaks [are] a promising tool to improve both," the authors write. "Organizations need to recognize the importance of breaks and engage in deliberate efforts to facilitate effective breaks." (Lyubykh/Gulseren, Harvard Business Review, 5/31)
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