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Making the Most Productive Use of Work Breaks

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Jun 1, 2023

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Taking breaks effectively during the workday can increase both well-being and performance, two researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

“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,” wrote Canadian academics Zhanna Lyubykh, an assistant professor of management and organization studies at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, and Duygu Biricik Gulseren, an assistant professor at the School of Human Resources Management at York University.

Taking breaks is beneficial for well-being and performance because “we all have a limited pool of physical and psychological resources,” they wrote. “Pushing through work when very little energy is left in the tank puts a strain on well-being and work performance.”

They noted that nonstop work can lead to a negative spiral of a worker attempting to complete a task despite feeling tired and depleted, which leads to more mistakes. “Taking breaks can help employees to recharge and short-circuit the negative spiral of exhaustion and decreasing productivity,” they wrote.

Breaks come in many different shapes and forms, but the authors’ research found that that not all break types are equally effective. So, they recommended some common break elements to consider.

The length and timing of a break matter. Micro-breaks—disengaging from work frequently but for short periods of time—may be sufficient. Timing matters, too, as fatigue worsens over the workday. The authors wrote that shorter breaks are more effective in the morning and longer ones in the later afternoon because “we need more break time in the afternoon to recharge."

The location of breaks can also make a big difference. Their research showed that taking a break outdoors is better for recharging than staying at one’s desk.

Break activity is also something to be taken into account. Exercise is valuable, but needs to be done on a regular basis to be effective. Their review showed that browsing social media is the most common break type, but that can lead to emotional exhaustion, and diminished creativity and work engagement. “As such, this type of break may not be effective for boosting performance,” they wrote.

One study in their review showed that interactions with a dog can lower levels of cortisol hormone, an objective indicator of stress, but they wrote that “[m]ore research is needed in this area, as the effects on performance remain unclear.” They cite some research showing that “interactions with pets can substantially boost individuals’ psychological wellbeing, which in turn is strongly linked to performance.”

Managers and organizations can encourage breaks in several ways, they wrote.

They can foster positive attitudes toward breaks by, among other things, being informed about the performance-related benefits of work breaks and imparting that to their employees. They can also set examples by taking breaks themselves. They can schedule dedicated break times, but not be rigid about them; such a mandate can “reduce employee autonomy and can even have harmful effects on employees,” they wrote. They can also create break spaces near the office—an option that can include remote workers, too.

“Employee performance has always been a concern for organizations, and more organizations are making efforts to address employee well-being today,” they concluded. “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.”