Working too hard? New SFU research highlights importance of taking breaks

Work breaks should be seen as recovery opportunities that foster employee well-being and do not detract from performance, according to a Simon Fraser University researcher.

Zhanna Lyubykh, assistant professor, Management and Organization Studies at the Beedie School of Business led a systematic review of 83 studies focused on the role of work breaks in fostering well-being and performance. The review is currently in press in the Journal of Occupation Health Psychology.

The researchers highlight the benefits of taking regular breaks during the work day. These benefits include a range of well-being indicators, such as decreasing the amount of stress, emotional exhaustion, cognitive irritation and sleeping problems. Taking more frequent work breaks of 10 minutes or more improves psychological well-being, and there is some evidence showing improvements in physical well-being such as reducing back pain.

While some organizations might be concerned that breaks require time and, as a result, may detract from performance, the researchers note that taking breaks does not have a negative impact on employee performance. In fact, breaks can improve some performance indicators.

The length of time or frequency of breaks appears to matter less compared to how employees spend their time while on break.

The most prevalent work break activity was social media use with 97 per cent of workers engaging with social media on their break. However, social media use had mixed results such as boosting work engagement one hour later but decreasing creativity.

Exercising while on break did not have a notable impact on employee performance but improved psychological and physical well-being.

Socializing during breaks can be beneficial as long as it is not forced and colleagues refrain from work-related conversations. One study found that workers experienced a reduction in stress when they interacted with a therapy dog while on break. These findings suggest that employees need to choose wisely with regards to activity and company while on break.

The location and timing also matters. Taking a break outdoors compared to indoors with access to greenspace contributed to feelings of restoration. Timing breaks for after lunch in the afternoon was also more effective in reducing emotional strain than those taken at any other times.

To encourage employees to take breaks, managers and organizations need to foster positive attitudes toward breaks in the workplace. -When employees see work breaks as useful and necessary, they are less likely to skip or shorten their break,- says Lyubykh.

-Organizations can help by introducing unstructured break periods that allow employees to take breaks as needed. Studies show that employees who can choose when they take their breaks experience less stress compared to workplaces that have an overly rigid work break schedule.-