The research-backed wisdom of taking breaks at work Science says stop
HR Insights

Call it the busy trap, virtual hamster wheel, or just plain workaholism. Either way, our inability to take breaks from work is working against us. We turned to science to find out why stopping work is necessary to getting any work done.

By Jenny Aitken
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“Take a break” is the kind of advice that’s easy to give, yet irrationally hard to take. We’re quick to dish it out—to friends, partners, even coworkers who share the same desk and deadlines.

But when the tables turn and you’re in need of a reset?

“Oh no, I’m fine.”

“I’ll just push through. “I need another 20 minutes, tops”

“I can’t stop now, it’ll never get done.”

Managers are often the worst culprits, which in turn breeds a culture where employees of all levels absorb the same mentality: there’s no time for breaks; we’ll sleep when we’re retired.

Managers are often the worst culprits. “There’s no time for breaks; we’ll sleep when we’re retired.”

A dangerous habit

Skipping a few breaks may seem harmless at first, but the damaging effects add up quickly. Chances are, you’re feeling a few of them right now: exhaustion, stress, poor diet and even poorer sleep patterns.

For managers in particular, not taking breaks—and not encouraging your employees to do the same—can go far deeper, affecting everything from mental and physical health, to engagement, team morale, and productivity.

And there’s research to prove it.

A 2015 article from Harvard Business Review cites at least ten separate studies on the harmful effects of overworking:

“Numerous studies…have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease,” writes Sarah Green Carmichael.

“Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.”

Other studies point to the diminishing returns of unbroken screen-time. That is, as work hours increase, so do costly mistakes.

As work hours increase, so do costly mistakes.

‘Busy’ is a lie

Why is it so hard for us to step away from our laptops? One theory is the busy trap—the idea that office workers today confuse being busy for being ambitious.

Others lay the blame on always-on technology. Yes, Slack and email let us leave the office early and catch up on tasks—but they also prevent us from ever leaving the office mindset.

Call it the busy trap, virtual hamster wheel, or just plain workaholism. Either way, our inability to take breaks from work is working against us.

Because merely repeating the same advice (even in the form of inspirational quotes) isn’t very helpful, we turned to science to help us understand how harmful nonstop work can be, and how to make the most of the breaks we take.

How to take better breaks at work

STUDY #1: Take micro breaks to truly focus

Many people make the mistake of thinking they can power through the day and only rest after hours. Not only does this not work, it can backfire.

A study by the University of Konstanz and Portland State found that overworking during the day actually makes it harder to rest at night, perpetuating a vicious cycle of exhaustion and poor performance.

The solution? Instead of saving all of your breaks up for one long pause, break them up into short and frequent micro breaks. Even a few minutes at a time can dramatically improve our ability to focus for prolonged periods.

Even a few minutes can dramatically improve our ability to focus.

STUDY #2: Take scheduled breaks to boost productivity

Let’s be realistic: if you don’t schedule your breaks, they won’t happen. Work will keep piling up, as will the Slack notifications, unread Tweets, and other mental-energy-sucks.

Set an alarm to go off every 20 to 60 minutes to remind yourself to step away—far away—from your laptop. This study suggests that scheduling breaks earlier in your work shift (i.e. mid-morning) is even more beneficial.

There are several free apps designed just for this purpose. A few popular ones are

STUDY #3: Take a break to save your life

According to the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagen, a sedentary lifestyle can shave up to seven ‘high quality’ years off of your life. It can also lead to heart disease, obesity, and some types of cancer.

Since you’ve already scheduled your breaks, use them to get moving. Aim for 5-10 minutes of activity every hour — that could be a stroll around your block, a series of squats and lunges at your desk, or just walking back and forth while you take a business call.

Five minutes for seven years…sounds like a fair trade.

Five minutes for seven years…sounds like a fair trade.

STUDY #4: Take breaks with purpose

Not all breaks are created equal. While swapping your work-related tabs for Facebook or tabloid news might feel like a nice pause, science says it’s not.

Another study on micro breaks shows that doing any kind of ‘cognitive work’ during a break can make you just as fatigued as actually working.

To make your break meaningful, you have to stop all activities that resemble work in any way, including texting, emails, or other online browsing.

Instead, ask your colleague about her favourite restaurant, meditate, or, as this fantastic research suggests: take a nap at work.

STUDY #5: Make vacations part of your company culture

Sometimes (and by sometimes we mean more often than you think), a short break just won’t do it. True restoration and recovery happens during longer, sustained breaks from work. So much so that in Canada, unlike many other countries, a minimum of 10 days paid vacation is recognized not as a perk, but as a worker’s right.

Studies have shown that work vacations can prevent chronic strain and burnout.

True restoration and recovery happens during longer, sustained breaks from work.

“The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound,” says clinical psychologist Francine Lederer. ”Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out.”

Yet despite the evidence that we all need vacation, not everyone is taking theirs. In the U.S., a survey found that the average employee takes only half of their vacation days, and that 66% report working while on vacation.

The greater issue here isn’t that employees don’t know the value of a vacation; it’s that they don’t understand the value their organization places on taking one.

“Two-thirds of employees feel that their company culture is ambivalent, discouraging, or sends mixed messages about time off,” according to Project: Time Off. “If workplaces—particularly managers and company leadership—start talking about vacation’s benefits, habits could change for the better.”

So how do you make vacation a part of your company culture? It begins with organization and communication.

How to make time off part of your company culture

  1. Create a competitive and compliant time off policy. Hint — we created a time off management guide just for that.
  2. Openly communicate the policy to all levels of employees during onboarding, in meetings, and in general office communications.
  3. Hold managers accountable. If you are a manager, lead by example. Announce when you are going on holiday, ask others about their vacation plans, and purposefully unplug.
  4. Make requesting time off as easy as possible so that employees don’t get discouraged from taking a vacation before they’ve even asked for one.
  5. Manage and track time off requests so you can see who isn’t take time off and create company-wide programs that encourage healthy behaviour.

Whether because of guilt, fear, an unmanageable workload, or a misguided sense of ambition, our philosophy around breaks is broken.

Fixing it begins with your company’s culture towards breaks of all kinds — from 5-minute micro breaks to full-on vacations.

The bottom like is that work breaks aren’t a sign of luxury or laziness. They are absolutely needed to get our jobs done.

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Want to find out how your company’s time off policy stacks up to others in Canada? Download our free 2017 Time Off Benchmarks Report.