HR 101: Yes, Your Employees Are More Efficient When They Take a Break

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Nov 17, 2015

According to a recent study of Staples employees, many of them feel guilty about taking breaks at work other than their lunch break, despite working longer-than-average shifts.

Even with 90 percent of bosses encouraging regular breaks and 86 percent of workers agreeing that they make them more productive, more than a quarter of employees neglect to take them when working more than eight (8) hours in a shift.

Taking short breaks during the work day has been proven time and time again to increase individual productivity, loosen the mind up, and make for more creative and relaxed employees.

Why employee breaks make sense

Buffer recently outlined the reasons this is so in an excellent roundup:

  • Breaks keep us from getting bored – The human brain simply wasn’t meant for extended focus. If it does the same thing for too long, it gets bored. Small breaks in between break up the monotony, refresh the mind, and can actually increase focus on the task at hand.
  • Breaks help retain information and make connections – Your brain can’t be “on” all the time. It also needs time to ruminate, daydream, compile and make connections among the information it’s receiving. It’s when we’re in this “diffused” mode of thinking, when we are doing the opposite of focusing, that difficult problems are processed and solved.
  • Breaks help evaluate goals – Working a continuous task for too long can leave you feeling like you wandered into the tall grass, making it easy to lose focus, says Harvard Business Review. Taking short breaks gives you pit stops along the way, allowing you think globally for a few seconds, and helping you stay mindful of objectives.

So if we all know the rejuvenating benefits of taking breaks at work, why do 76 percent of workers feel tired most of the week, with 15 percent admitting to falling asleep at work? The answer may be that renewing one’s self at work is a skill that needs to be practiced, and we’re just not getting the right encouragement.

Lost energy

Tony Schwartz is CEO of Energy Project, a consultancy that helps Fortune 500 companies get more productivity out of workers by getting more serious about how they take breaks and renew their energy over the course of a workday. He explains the core dilemma in a New York Times opinion article:

Taking more time off is counterintuitive for most of us. The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted… In most workplaces, rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive.”

When our workloads increase, Schwartz argues, our tendency is to hunker down and work even harder and longer, which only exhausts our brainpower more quickly, lowering the overall quality of work in the long run. Taking small pit stops during the day is more conducive to the way our brain naturally works; greatly increasing focus in short bursts, resulting in higher overall productivity and energy levels.

Preventing burnout

More important, breaking frequently during the day goes a long way to preventing employee burnout, which can understandably wreak havoc on engagement.

A 2012 Towers Watson study found that the top two drivers of performance were having leaders who demonstrate a sincere interest in employee well-being and having manageable stress levels with a reasonable work/life balance. Getting your employees to be more conscious about their personal time than their work time is not always easy, but necessary.

To paraphrase an old saying, people may be “willing,” but they may not always be “able.” The mind needs rest just like the body does.

Serious downtime

But never fear, we’re here to help. There are three prevailing strategies for taking breaks effectively at work:

  1. Ultradian Method – Based on our brain’s natural Ultradian rhythms, the Ultradian Method breaks the day into 90-minute blocks of activity balanced with 20-minute blocks of rest in between. Work on a task for 90 minutes, break for 20. Our brains expend glucose and oxygen when working – quite a bit for an organ of its size – and it gets burned up no matter what task you’re doing. The Ultradian rhythm serves as our brain’s internal recharge timer, and following it helps to keep your fuel levels consistent throughout the day.
  2. The 52-17 Method – If you want to get really scientific, the 52-17 Method was developed by observing how the most productive employees work, and winnowing down the results to reach the optimal balance of work and rest per hour, which you can probably guess is 52-minute blocks of work countered by 17-minute blocks of rest. While similar to the Ultradian Method, the 52-17 creators argue that the slightly shortened timeframe does a better job and getting employees to treat each work block as a sprint, resulting in more intense focus on tasks.
  3. “Pomodoro” Technique – Developed in the late 1980s and named after the Italian word for “tomato,” the Pomodoro Technique breaks the work day up into 25-minute intervals (each 25-minute block is called a “pomodori”). The employee sets a timer at their desk, works on a task for one pomodori then takes a short 3-5 minute break. After four (4) pomodori, the employee takes a longer break of 15-30 minutes. It’s a bit more complex than its counterparts, but adding in the micro-breaks between longer ones increases overlearning and gives the brain much needed downtime to assimilate new ideas.

An essential survival skill

So however you take a break at work, the point is to choose a reliable method and learn to do it when your workload becomes too much, and to keep doing it consistently to protect yourself from burnout.

In a world where a 47-hour work week is the norm, paid maternity leave isn’t mandatory, and unused vacation time is at a 40-year high, it’s an essential survival skill.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

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