Taking breaks at work is essential for both your productivity and well-being. Regular breaks throughout the workday help you be more focused and creative, make better decisions, and perform better at the task at hand. Even short breaks can promote healthy habits like movement and help relieve some stress accumulated throughout the working day.
So why do some people continue to eat their lunch at the desk, rush back from a quick break or take no break at all during the workday?
You feel you don’t have the time to take a break.
Your workload can be a much more significant influence on whether you take a break than your manager or the official company policy. Even if your manager tells you it’s okay to take a break, and it’s written in the employee handbook, you may not feel like you can do it because of the amount of work you must complete.
Even though you know you will have more energy and ability to focus after taking a short break, the meetings and to-do list seem to crowd out any space for you to do that.
This is a problem not only in terms of your productivity but also for your well-being. Continuous working sessions over 90 minutes can trigger the body’s ‘fight or flight’ stress response. Without regular breaks throughout the day to relieve stress and rebalance, you are at risk of high work-related stress and potential burnout if you don’t take a break.
You worry that taking a break will interrupt your flow at work.
If you have even been working on a task that requires focus and creativity, you may have been tempted to skip your breaks. You may be worried that you will break the flow and lose momentum. This is especially true in a world where interruptions, distractions and meetings too often disrupt deep work. If you have found yourself in a position where you can work non-stop, you might feel taking a break would be a waste of time.
However, taking a longer break is more important than ever when it comes to deep work. Research has suggested that a short break of less than ten minutes can give you a boost, but it doesn’t fully restore the resources needed to perform your best in a cognitively demanding or creative task.
Allowing yourself to rest for even 30 minutes will help sustain your performance on these days.
You feel guilty about being “away” from work.
“It’s okay to be away.” This is one of the mantras I share when I deliver workshops and seminars to remind people that taking breaks at work is normal, expected, and necessary.
Unfortunately, our remote and hybrid work culture has come with a fear of looking unproductive or lazy if you are seen to be away from your desk. This is especially true if you need to take a break at a different time than your team or peers, which can happen because of meetings, other commitments and personal preferences.
Even though we know that disengaging from work only for a few minutes to take a micro-break can be sufficient for preventing exhaustion and boosting performance, we fear that we will be away at the wrong moment.
Work cultures of hyperresponsiveness, urgency-as-normal and micromanagement exacerbate this.
How to get better at taking breaks at work
It takes more than a calendar reminder to encourage you to take more breaks at work. If that were the solution, you would already be doing it. To get better at taking breaks, you need to understand what is causing you to skip them so you can take the best next step to create healthier work habits.
If you skip breaks because your workload is too heavy:
- Begin with short breaks of less than 10 minutes and schedule them for before or after meetings or other fixed events in your calendar.
- Complete a workload review to help clarify priorities and timelines for your work.
- Keep a daily to-do list and check things off as you go along to see that you can progress while allowing yourself time for a break.
If you skip breaks because you don’t want to lose flow:
- Build 30-minute breaks into your plans for this type of work. Another way to do this is to downsize your expectations of how much you will get done in that time.
- Take a walk or do something unrelated to work on your break, and notice if you come up with fresh ideas or perspectives during this time.
- Use an interruption as an opportunity to take a micro-break and return to your task with more intention.
If you skip breaks because you are worried about how it will look to others:
- Begin with micro-breaks.
- When you return from a break, take the opportunity to assess how your day is going and refocus or reprioritise if needed.
- Ask your team when they generally take breaks and align with them, even if you are working remotely.
Be a role model for breaks with your team.
Whether you are a manager or a graduate, you can be a role model for breaks within your team. Setting a good example by taking breaks at work will have a ripple effect on the people you work with.
If you are a manager, consider having break corridors for your team, for example, between 12.00 and 2.30 pm and avoid scheduling meetings at this time where possible. This will give your team the confidence to take a break, even if it’s outside the “regular” break time.
It takes a while to build new work habits and break old ones, so don’t be discouraged if you skip a break after reading this article. Pick a time for your next break, set a reminder on your phone and keep moving forward.
References and related reading:
Zacher, H., Brailsford, H. A., & Parker, S. L. (2014). Micro-breaks matter: A diary study on the effects of energy management strategies on occupational well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(3), 287–297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2014.08.005