It is Thursday morning. You are at your desk trying hard to solve an important task, but every three minutes the telephone rings and you are constantly interrupted.
You look at your to-do list and you start to panic. Everything needs to be finished by Monday morning and, if all these interruptions continue, you’ll probably need to sacrifice your weekend.
There is only one thing that will help: disconnect the line, skip your your breaks and work all day through. Blinded by your seemingly grandiose idea, you now seem fully motivated – you have a plan and it’s going to work.
A few hours later, you start losing concentration; your eyes get tired, you can’t focus, you are restless, and gradually your performance starts to decline.
Yet a break is out of the question, even if your stress barometer gradually enters the red zone.
When the day comes to an end and you feel completely burnt out, you realize, to your own horror, that your task is not even nearly finished and perhaps a lot of mistakes have been made.
With this balance of the day, you can only think that you could have well taken some breaks – you would have done probably as much as you did but you wouldn’t been feeling this exhaustion.
Is this scenario somehow familiar?
36% of the German workforce claim that they “do not have time for breaks”.
According to a study by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Medicine (Bundesanstalt and Bundesschutz für Arbeitsmedizin), 36% of the German workforce claim that they “do not have time for breaks”.
Why are breaks so important for your health and well-being?
- You avoid and reduce stress and burnout
- You can sustain better your level of concentration
- You are more productive
- Your error rate decreases
- You recharge your body and mind with renewed energy to successfully solve upcoming tasks
For a long time, breaks have been seen as only necessary to unproductive, uncommitted employees, and was often associated with laziness. But more and more scientific studies show the importance of “micro-breaks” for our productivity.
“The art of resting is part of the art of working.” – John Steinbeck
It’s been found that only relaxing after the workday are not enough as recovery mechanisms. The same study also noted that not every break helps: the ones that reduce the effects of work demands are those in which there is some kind of social activity or relaxation exercise. On the contrary, cognitive activities (like checking emails or reading the news) aggravate feelings of fatigue.
By nature, the human body feels much better when active. The prehistoric men used to walk all day hunting and gathering food, running from beasts and looking for ways to survive. Our body, then, performs and feels much better when it is in motion during the days and resting at night. A sedentary life, as so many of us have nowadays, goes against this nature, therefore the importance of taking plenty of micropauses during the day to move and stretch.
What is a micro-break?
It’s a pause that lasts around a minute and gives your body the chance to recharge and release tension. They are short, but not for that reason less effective. Besides the positive psychological aspects of taking small pauses, getting up and moving a few times an hour has great benefits. Use your micropauses to move and stretch your body. Some exercises include:
- Stand up straight, lift your arms, and bend slightly backwards and to the sides.
- Stand up straight and move your legs and hips in circles.
- Walk down the aisle a few times while breathing deeply.
- Roll your shoulders forwards and backwards.
- If you have a chance to go out briefly and have some fresh air, excellent.
These short movements will stimulate blood flow, bring oxygen to the brain, and reduce or avoid back pain.
Taking small breaks every hour increases our productivity
Our brain is designed to detect and respond to change, and prolonged attention to a single task goes against any productivity effort. A recent study shows that we have trouble doing the same task for prolonged periods and that, after a while, we begin to lose focus and our performance degrades.
One of the main conclusions from the study was that “when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Brief pauses are therefore a real necessity to keep us concentrated and improve our ability to focus on that single task for longer.
Also, and probably most importantly if you worry about your performance, if you deprive yourself of short pauses, then you will need really long ones to recover.
If you deprive yourself of small breaks, then you will need a really long one to recover.
“Mental concentration is similar to a muscle”, says Dr. John P. Trougakos. “It becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover, much as a weightlifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.” The suggestion? To take a break before reaching the exhaustion point.
Using your break to strengthen the relationship with colleagues
As we before, not any break will do. Leaving your desk to do other activities that are useful (like Internet shopping, taking care of pending chores and other responsibilities) but not restful not only do not help to reduce our fatigue but they can even increase it. The key is to fully switch off, and for this social interactions are the best escape.
Yet not every social interaction may work. Research shows that connecting with friends or family digitally helps very little in countering emotional exhaustion. Also, imposed socialization with colleagues as a strategy by managers to force communication and camaraderie, does not seem to prevent fatigue or improve personal productivity.
A pleasant working environment ensures motivation and reduces stress, yet socialization needs to be natural, personal, and conversations should not revolve around work or tasks to do.
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