Career Woman

The best types of breaks to take at work (that improve your health)


Depending on how much you love your job, and to some extent, your work ethic, breaks are either the highlight of the day, or something that gets in the way of actually doing work.

The stereotypical workaholic tends to believe breaks are for the weak. If they could have their lunch injected via IV drip while they checked their emails, they would happily opt for this option.

In polar opposite are clock watchers whose sole reason for working is for the pay check. If someone is doing a coffee run, they will be the first to volunteer to go with you. If people are standing around the water cooler talking about last night’s episode of Married at First Sight, they race to join in.

And of course, many workers sit somewhere in between, often depending on the day. On some days, time flies and breaks are forgotten, but other days can feel like long slogs.

However, what few people fail to think about is the impact that breaks, and more specifically, the length and activity of your breaks, is having on your productivity. According to science, there are several ways to extract maximum value from your work breaks.

Have your first break early in the day

When it comes to the very first break of the workday, research conducted by Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu from Baylor University discovered there is an optimum time to take it. In their research, Hunter and Wu recruited around 100 office workers in the United States. After every single break participants took over the course of a week, they were asked to complete a survey.

Hunter and Wu found that those who took their first break earlier in their working day reported feeling more energetic. As such, workers need to avoid saving their break up for when they feel like they really need it (e.g. struggling to the afternoon and then taking a break). Additionally, feeling like you are “too busy” to take a break and thus delaying it until the afternoon is also a poor strategy when it comes to maintaining energy levels.

Align your break activity with something enjoyable

Hunter and Wu found that to maximise a break’s ability to recharge, workers need to do something they find enjoyable during their breaks. For example, getting a coffee with a co-worker whose company you don’t particularly enjoy would be far less recharging compared to if you were a book worm who used the break to do some reading.

While you might assume that activities involving more effort, such as running errands, would make for a less effective break than non-effortful activities, no difference was found. Likewise, the effectiveness of a break was not impacted by whether people left the office or did work related tasks during their break.

Take six x five-minute breaks

The length of an optimal break is not something many workers think about. Length of a break is often dictated by social norms within the organisation, or by a roster. However, research from the University of Colorado uncovered that there is an optimum length of time for breaks. The researchers found that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.

While finding time for six breaks might be challenging, even getting into the habit of going for a quick walk around the block will reap rewards.

Alternatively, setting Google Calendar to the “speedy meetings” setting to schedule 25- and 50-minute meetings, rather than 30 and 60 minute meetings, makes it easier to fit in five-minute breaks in days of back-to-back meetings.

The 40 second power break

Finally, for workers who don’t have time to implement any of the above suggestions, research has recently revealed that the minimum effective dose for a break is just 40 seconds. Research from the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that taking a 40-second “Green Micro-break”, that is, looking at a view of greenery, increased concentration levels by 8%. So taking less than a minute to look at some trees will work wonders for productivity.

About Dr Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators. Sign up to be part of Amantha’s Year of Better, a quest to become more productive, creative, happier, and an all-round better person through a year's worth of experiments.

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