How many times have you worked relentlessly on a task, refusing to take a break, only to find it harder and harder to complete?

How taking scheduled work breaks impacts your resilience 

Taking scheduled breaks during the working day has been found to improve physical and mental well-being and hence resilience. Breaks increase concentration, creativity, mood, sleep quality, work engagement, positivity, and performance, and reduced tiredness and stress. All findings of a recent Systematic Review of 80 workplace studies (Harvard Business Review 2023 1 ).

Not taking breaks can be detrimental to our health

A lack of restorative work breaks has been linked to increased stress, emotional exhaustion, and burnout. This results in reduced resilience and employee well-being (Hassan et al 2020 2, Russell 2016 3).

Recovery from work is a critical component of employee well-being, resilience, and performance. Not just after-work recovery, but also the recovery that happens while at work in the form of work breaks. If you do not take breaks during the day you will need a longer recovery period at the end of the day.

Mandatory Work Breaks 

Work demands and depletes employees physical and psychological resources, and many countries have introduced mandated work breaks (EU Mandatory Work Breaks 4). Despite this many workers forgo work breaks.

Studies have demonstrated that employees recover when work demands are removed, either by a change in the environment or detaching from work. Conversely, employees experience strain if the work demands are continuous without a recovery period. This results in depletion of their mental resources, and they experience reduced well-being and performance, leading to lower resilience.

How do breaks help?

Breaks help us to stay focused on the task, help us retain information and make the connections necessary for problem solving. And they help us stay on topic by taking a ‘step back’. However, many knowledge workers report either not taking breaks or not taking effective breaks. A 2022 study by ez cater 5 in the US found :-

78% of employees agree taking a lunch break improves performance

10% of employees polled never take a lunch break

70% eat whilst they work at least once a week

43% of employees eat lunch at their desk at least 3 times / week

– ezCater, Boston

Previous studies found most employees take < 30 minutes for lunch (Min et al 2010 6).

Employee Burnout increasing whilst Engagement is decreasing

As highlighted in a previous article on resilience, stress, and burnout, rates of self-reported burnout continue to rise. Estimates range from 42% (Future Forum, Feb 2023 7) to 59% (Aflac US, September 2022 8 ). Whilst employee engagement continues to fall with only 32% of US workers feeling engaged and only 10% of UK workers (Gallup, Jan 2023 9), both factors known to affect performance and resilience.

How, when, and where should we take breaks for maximum effect?

Work breaks entail a range of activities not all of which are positive, one example being work-related activities (Sonnentag et al 2022 10).

Theories around the nature of recovery itself include Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan 1995 11). This suggests that exposure to nature helps restore mental resources and facilitate recovery experiences, leading to improved well-being and hence resilience.

The Affective Events Theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996 12), suggests that breaks increase positive emotions, and decrease negative emotions. This results in increased well-being and performance and leads to increased resilience.

Type of break

Breaks that provide psychological detachment and relaxation are the best, followed by mastering a skill and socialising:

Physical exercise enhances physical and psychological well-being with reduced stress, more energy, better emotional state, and increased relaxation, especially with mentally demanding work. It has been shown to enhance resilience levels particularly in relation to cognitive function.

Socialising with colleagues can be beneficial since it fosters psychological detachment from work. However, this is not true if it consists of work-related conversations found to deplete employee mental resources, and hence resilience.

Interacting with animals during breaks is beneficial since it reduces cortisol and stress levels, and increases psychological well-being and performance (Machova et al, 2019 13). In a OnePoll Canadian survey in March 2022 14 48% of owners claimed to be more productive at work when their pet was nearby.  39% believed their pets helped them avoid burnout, and 70% were willing to trade pay for a pet-friendly office.

97% of workers reported engaging with social media in breaks. However, the impact is inconsistent as it can both boost and hinder well-being, performance, productivity, and work engagement. Whilst scrolling through social media can be emotionally exhausting and lead to reduced creativity (Kuhnel et al 2020 15, Syrek et al 2018 16, Rhee & Kim 2016 17).

Location of Breaks

Breaks in greenspace produced positive feelings of restoration. Generally, outdoor breaks demonstrated more positive effects than indoor breaks, including increased productivity (Nejati et al, 2016 18).

Duration of Breaks

Breaks, particularly longer ones of 10 or more minutes, are most effective post-lunch since fatigue worsens during the workday.

Micro Breaks

These are of short duration (3-5 minutes), can be taken frequently, and encompass recovery activities such as exercise, stretching or relaxation, and experiences such as connecting with a friend.

They are an important strategy for restoring energy levels (Kim et al 2022 19), work engagement, and improving psychological and physical well-being and positivity- all factors that impact resilience.

However, activities such as nutrition breaks, with the exception of caffeine intake, have no impact on reducing the effects of work demands, whilst cognitive activities have a negative impact (Kim et al 2017 20).

Micro-breaks are especially effective for workers with low work engagement, and/or high levels of compulsiveness. In this situation employees will get most benefit if they take micro-breaks in the afternoon.

Frequency and Timing

More frequent work breaks can improve psychological well-being (Hurtado et al 2015 21) and hence resilience. However, there needs to be a certain level of autonomy for the employee as to the timing of breaks, since an overly rigid work break schedule can be detrimental and lead to increased psychological and physiological arousal (Boucsein & Thum, 1997 22).

Encouraging employees to take breaks

Organisations need to make leaders aware of the positive benefits of scheduling breaks for improved performance and well-being amongst employees. In addition, they should provide on-site activities such as group exercise, and dedicated spaces for breaks.

Leaders need to promote positive attitudes towards taking breaks by role modelling behaviours themselves to ensure that employees schedule breaks into their working day.

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