How "micro-breaks" can help you feel better at work

How long does a work break need to be to feel better?

Not very long at all, according to a new research review by “micro-breaks,” which the authors defined as a break of 10 minutes or less. The findings were published Aug. 31 in the journal PLUS ONE. People who took breaks had statistically significant improvements in their well-being – making them feel more energetic and less tired. The results, based on a review of 22 previously published studies involving 2,335 participants, showed that those who took microbreaks were about 60 percent more likely to feel energized, according to Patricia Albulescu and Coralia Sulea, co-authors of the study. and researchers from the Western University of Timisoara in Romania.

However, the research is less conclusive about whether micro-breaks improve performance. The benefits varied from study to study and across different types of tasks, and ultimately the effect was not statistically significant, although the researchers found that there was an improvement as the breaks got longer.

However, there is solid evidence that for your average worker with a stuck work, small breaks can have a big impact, says John P. Trougakos, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto-Scarborough and an expert on breaks. (He was not involved in the new review.) By combining short and long breaks in the workday, workers will feel better and produce better work.

Here’s what you need to know about micro-breaks and how they can improve your workday.

Why micro-breaks are important

Trougakos argued that the studies in the new review missed an important factor: fatigue tends to worsen over time. Because the experiments in the 22 studies were limited by time, it was not possible to measure the ways in which job fatigue may create a vicious cycle of performance.

“The more tired you get, the more effort you have to put in to keep performing. So you’re actually expending more and more effort and doing it less and less efficiently,” says Trougakos. “The short breaks, whether it’s a 10-minute break, a 5-minute break, standing up and stretching, you kind of give the person a chance to stop the cycle of exhaustion, but also to re-energize a little bit.”

Overall, says Trougakos, although there hasn’t been much research on micro-breaks and performance, the science suggests that short breaks are important. This includes studies with an ergonomic angle that have found that resting your eyes and stretching are necessary to avoid eye strain and skeletal fatigue—a discomfort that can distract and exhaust workers. Not getting enough breaks can also negatively affect workers’ quality of sleep and life outside of work and gradually make them feel burned out. Studies show that high-performing employees tend to work relatively short periods, with long breaks – according to a study published by a company to track performance, costs 52 minutes of work for every 17 minutes of rest. “The idea is: you don’t work harder to be more productive; you work smarter to be more productive,” says Trougakos.

The ideal is shattered

The breaks you need may depend on what you do; for example, activities you enjoy may be less draining than a task you hate or that causes you a lot of stress. As a general rule, however, Trougakos recommends spending about 90 minutes at work, followed by a 15- or 20-minute break. During this work period you will also take micro-breaks. Trugakos offers a short stretch break every 20 or 30 minutes, as well as a “disengage from the task” break somewhere in the middle of those 90 minutes.

But what’s the best way to relax during those short breaks? While there’s evidence that some things are good for everyone, like stretching, relaxation, or light-to-moderate physical activity (think: going for a walk), says Trougakos, the best rest depends on individual preference. For example, an extrovert might choose to grab coffee with their friends from work, while an introvert might sneak out with a book. The key, he says, is that you have control over what you do during your time off.

Of course, Trougakos acknowledges that some managers and companies will be nervous about allowing their employees to take so many vacations. Flexibility is key – employees have different needs for breaks, which can vary from task to task or even from day to day. In many cases, however, Trougakos argues that the shift to hybrid schedules and I work from home gave organizations and workers a new opportunity: to branch out and find new ways of working to maximize productivity. While allowing flexibility in time off may seem counterintuitive to companies, it actually fits with what most employers value: “enabling people to be fully productive but also be healthy and have a balanced life,” says Trugakos.

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