The ongoing demands of work and life can take a toll on our wellbeing, with persistent demands depleting our physical resources and cognitive capacity. This can often result in emotional distress, reduced energy and poor performance. The advances of technology have exacerbated this problem and expanding the boundaries of the working or studying week. For many people, work and study are now accessible anywhere and anytime and it can be difficult to set aside time for simply resting or taking a break. During the working day or busiest periods of deadlines, some may be used to working indefinitely without taking a break. Reasons for not taking a break could be attributed to having a high workload, losing track of time, feeling as if taking time away from the task is counterproductive, and being part of a culture where individuals may feel guilty for taking time off. However, working without taking a break is found to lead to mental and physical fatigue, and could contribute to long-term burnout.
Taking mini breaks gives us time to recharge and rest. This could be spending a few minutes away from your desk, chatting with someone who is in the room with you, or getting a drink. After a break, people are found to be more motivated, have increased concentration and productivity, and return to work with more energy than before the break. A study of call-centre employees who took regular breaks found that the employees' enthusiasm and commitment to work increased after taking a break. This also had a measurable impact on the company's sales figures, showing that rest and rebooting can have flow on effects.
It may be difficult to determine taking a break on your own accord if certain workplace or study timetables do not allow for this. However, no matter how short your break is, preferably leave your workplace or workstation and certainly do not remain behind your computer screen. When you have the opportunity to go, take a brief walk outside, eat your lunch in the park or in the staffroom (rather than at your desk) and perhaps stretch your arms, back and shoulders. If weather permits, try to go outside and complete a mini-mindfulness routine by breathing in the fresh air, observing the colours around you, touching any leaves or flowers, listening to the sounds of nature and eating or drinking mindfully. Relaxing breaks such as these have been found to help facilitate recovery by returning our mental and physical functioning systems to their baseline.
Social breaks in the form of having a meal or drink with your peers or simply chatting has also been found to be beneficial. These social interactions help us to share experiences, check in with each other and foster feelings of relatedness. This has been positively associated with feeling recovered after the break.
When we get lost in our work or feel frustrated that we are not making progress, breaks can often get neglected. Here are some tips to help prompt you to rebuild your energy and step away:
- Set an alarm on your phone to prompt you or agree on break times with your peers and schedule this into your calendar.
- Plan to do something in your break that brings you joy or pleasure that is not work-related. This may be eating, drinking, reading, calling friends/family, or simply stepping away. The anticipation of this pleasure can motivate you to stick to the break and make it a priority in your day.
- Pay attention to any benefits you may experience when you take a break. Perhaps you found yourself smiling or laughing in the company of others, you may feel relaxed or less tense or returned to your desk with some more bounce. These personal experiences will lodge in your mind and be a motivator to take frequent breaks in the future.
- Use post-it notes or drawings in your workspace to remind you that you will not be performing your best if you are not feeling your best. Rest is not something that needs to be earned, and taking a break is a form of self-care necessary to be our best selves.
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Berman, E. M., & West, J. P. (2007). The effective manager... takes a break. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 27(4), 380-400.
Packer, J. (2021). Taking a break: Exploring the restorative benefits of short breaks and vacations. Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights, 2(1), 100006.
Powell, K. (2017). Work–life balance: Break or burn out. Nature, 545(7654), 375-377.