Break It Up: The Why

This CNBC news article can tell you, but you probably already know. The COVID-19 shift to remote work has made work days longer. Not only are we working longer hours, we’re also experiencing fatigue from our screens. As I wrote in my post about dealing with virtual meetings, we need to make changes. There are tried and true strategies to help you work and feel better while we’re stuck at home. One of the most important strategies from this post on time management is taking breaks.

The Problem of Not Enough Breaks

This Forbes article on the significance of lunch breaks highlights some pretty surprising statistics. As a result of the misperception that working harder means working better, many employees skip lunch break altogether. In fact, about 1 in 5 employees is concerned they’ll be judged for taking a regular lunch break. Apparently, they worry that their coworkers or bosses will think they’re slacking off. On top of that, over one-third of workers don’t feel encouraged by their employer to take a break. I’m not even talking about frequent breaks! This resistance is just to a once daily break to eat food!

This focus group research identified several reasons why employees don’t take enough breaks at work. Sure enough, employees said they’d feel guilty about taking a break. It seems they consider breaks to be counterproductive rather than necessary for great work.

This trend needs to change. Taking breaks during the workday leads to a whole host of benefits. You’ll be well and work well when you start implementing more breaks. This week, I’ll delve into all the reasons you should. I’m calling this “The Why.” Next week, you’ll get “The How”: strategies to maximize your breaks. Let’s dive right in.

More Breaks at Work Means Fewer Breaks in the Bones

Taking a break at work matters for your health. This study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine demonstrated that taking more frequent breaks correlates to fewer injuries in employees. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Breaks aren’t only good for your physical health. They’re also critical to your mental wellbeing.

I named breaks as a critical intervention to fight both ordinary workplace stress and the current pandemic of burnout. There’s lots of science to back up the benefits. For example, this study found that exposure to nature decreased stress. Plus, this study is especially relevant for our upcoming winter months. Vitamin D exposure provides a significant boost to your mood during this season, helping you stay well in challenging times. These are the reasons why this Forbes article highlights improved mental wellness as a major benefit of taking more breaks.

Break Into Creativity

creativity breaks

Besides keeping you well, breaks at work can spark your creativity. That same Forbes article I’ve referenced a few times also lists creative thinking as a benefit of breaks. Stepping away from your work lets you tap into a new perspective. That fresh look at your work can nurture creativity.

This HBR article makes an even stronger argument. Citing two different experimental studies, the authors demonstrate that we don’t know the power of our own breaks. We think the answer to brain twisters is to just keep twisting our brains, but that’s not true. Instead, taking breaks from tasks that require creative problem solving skills boosts our chances of success.

That’s especially true if you use your break to go for a walk. This passionate article from HBR declares that walking during work is work, not a break. The benefits of taking a walk to boosting creativity are really well-documented and effective. There’s almost nothing better you could do for your work sometimes than mask up and go for a brief walk.

The Path to Productivity is Paved With Breaks

Not only do breaks boost creativity specifically, they also up your productivity overall. The benefits start big-picture. This article documents the effects of breaks on measures of employee engagement company-wide. Employees who take more breaks are more satisfied with their jobs, more motivated to stay, and more engaged with what they do. 

If you’re not one of those employees yet, you have good reason to jump on the bandwagon. Career coach Dina Denham Smith wrote this article to convince you. She calls taking a break “the most productive thing you can do.” There’s a few reasons why. First, breaks help you refocus on your goals. Denham Smith calls this effect “goal reactivation.” (If you don’t have great goals yet, check out this guide and make some.) When you come back to your work after a break, you have a better sense of why you’re doing it and what direction to take it.

Additionally, breaks improve your ability to make decisions. Denham Smith links this study on judges’ decision making to underscore a staggering finding. Judges deciding whether or not to grant parole made different decisions right after taking a break. Fresh from a break, judges granted parole in over half of cases. However, after several hours of consecutive work, they stopped granting parole in almost any cases. Evidently, even seasoned professionals need a break to freshen up their decision making skills.

Finally, breaks improve your mood, which bumps up productivity. This research report from the National Science Foundation found that insight into solutions happens more often during good moods. The researchers cautioned that insight can’t be forced. However, they suggested getting into a “happy, relaxed mood” to encourage it. That sounds like taking a break to me! Plus, this study on “green altruism” found that taking a walk through nature makes you more helpful. They found that a break in nature improved people’s moods, which made them more likely to engage in helping behavior. If you work in a team, this one’s especially important for you. Take breaks so you can be a better teammate to those around you.

Okay, I hope that mountain of evidence has convinced you that you need breaks. Of course, you might still feel a bit stuck. Hang in there. Next week, I’ll post a bunch of tips and strategies to make your breaks work for you. Until then, I need a break. Join me?