When your phone won't stop ringing, deadlines are fast approaching and the inbox on your desk looks like it is about to collapse from the strain of holding everything you need to do the thought of taking a break at work can seem ludicrous. Why waste half an hour doing nothing when you have so much to do?
While this thinking is perfectly understandable, it's also a little short-sighted. In the same way that a car needs fuel to keep going, and if you don't charge your cellphone, no one will be able to get in touch, you need to take a break to recharge your own energy levels.
But according to a growing amount of research, not just any break. Psychologists and other researchers have been focusing on the ways you can make your breaks most effective. Here's a look at some of their findings and how they translate into the real world of work.
The Importance of Switching Off Completely
It is tempting to spend a break doing things that are convenient rather than things that are restful. Catching up on some Internet shopping, checking the latest headlines, sending personal email etc. However, recent studies show that breaks are only restorative when you switch off completely. Doing things that still require thought and even a little concentration will make your break far less effective than it should be.
Consider a study published this year by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and George Mason University. One hundred Korean office workers were asked to keep a diary for ten days. In that diary they noted how much work pressure they had after lunch and what they did during any work breaks.
Each participant ultimately noted how fatigued they felt at the end of the day. The researchers coded the work break activities as relaxing (such as stretching), as nutrition-based (grabbing a coffee), social (chatting with colleagues), or cognitive (reading newspapers or checking emails).
As you’d expect, feeling that work demands were more intense around lunch time went hand in hand with feeling more end-of-day fatigue. Crucially, the right kind of break provided a protective buffer against this link between work demands and fatigue. Which kind of break was this? Only relaxation and social break activities had any benefit.
Cognitive activities during work breaks actually made fatigue worse, likely because reading websites or checking emails taxes many of the same mental processes that we use when we’re working.
Another related study, published this year by a pair of researchers at Ajou University in South Korea and the Korea Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, found that workers who spent their lunch break using their smart phone, as opposed to chatting with friends, felt like they’d enjoyed as much distraction from work as the sociable folk, but they actually ended up feeling more emotionally exhausted in the afternoon.
Take Short Breaks Early and Often
A key insight from the research is that it makes a difference when you take breaks. Most of us feel more energetic in the morning than in the afternoon, and it can be tempting to wait until we’re flagging later in the day before allowing ourselves a short break. However, findings suggest that we actually respond better to breaks in the morning – it seems you need to have some fuel in the tank to benefit from a re-fill.
This was one of the main findings to come out of a study of 95 employees at Baylor University across five days, in which they filled out brief surveys about how they were feeling after each break they took. Breaks taken in the morning were much more beneficial, in terms of the improvements in how the workers said they felt afterwards physically and mentally.
One important takeaway from the study was that if you take frequent breaks, then they don’t need to be as long to be beneficial – a couple of minutes might be enough. On the other hand, if you deprive yourself of many breaks, then when you do take one, it’s going to be need to be longer to have any beneficial effect.
Get Out of the Office
For people who work in a large office building, it’s easy to find yourself spending whole days indoors – you might take breaks to the water cooler or the kitchen, but nothing beats getting outside and away from the work environment. One problem with staying in the office, is that even if you take a decent lunch break and chat with colleagues, there’s still that pressure to maintain a good impression and you often end up talking shop.
When researchers led by John P. Trougakos at the University of Toronto recently studied the effect of different lunch break activities among nearly a hundred university workers, they found that staff who socialized at lunch or did any work-related activities at lunch were rated as more fatigued by their colleagues at the end of the day. This was especially the case if the socializing was imposed by management – something to bear in mind for bosses who try too hard to foster camaraderie in the work place.
If you can get outside, even if it’s just a five minute walk around the block, you potentially – depending on where you’re located – also get to benefit from a rejuvenating dose of nature. Countless studies have shown how a green environment gives us a mental boost, and what’s really encouraging is that recent work has shown that this doesn’t have to be a scenic serene mountaintop . A modest urban park is all it takes.