‘Micro-Breaks’ Can Help You Feel Better at Work

What length of a break do you need from work to feel better?

Not very long at all, according to a new research review on “micro-breaks,” which the authors defined as a break of 10 minutes or less. These findings were published in The Journal on August 31. PLOS ONE. People who took breaks experienced statistically significant boosts in their wellbeing—making them feel more vigorous and less fatigued. Based on 22 studies with 2,335 participants that were reviewed, the results show that micro-breaks resulted in about 60% more energy, according to Patricia Albulescu, Coralia Sulea and other researchers from the West University of Timisoara, Romania.

Although the results of micro-breaks were less convincing, they did improve worker performance. The benefits varied from study to study and across different kinds of tasks, and ultimately the effect wasn’t statistically significant, although the researchers found that there was improvement as the breaks got longer.

However, there’s robust evidence that for your average worker with a sedentary job, little breaks can have a big impact, says John P. Trougakos, professor of organizational behavior and HR management in the department of management at University of Toronto-Scarborough, and an expert on breaks. The new review did not involve him. Workers will be happier and more productive if they take short breaks and longer ones during the day.

Here’s what to know about micro-breaks, and how they can improve your work day.

What micro-breaks mean to you

Trougakos asserts that studies from the review overlook a key factor. Fatigue tends to get worse over time. Since the experiments in the 22 studies were constrained by time, it wasn’t possible to measure the ways in which being tired at work can create a vicious performance cycle.

“The more fatigued you get, the more effort you have to put in to keep performing. So you actually are expending more and more effort and doing it less and less efficiently,” says Trougakos. “Short breaks, whether it’s a 10-minute break, a 5-minute break, standing up and stretching, you’re kind of giving the person a chance to stop the depletion cycle, but also re-energize themselves a little bit.”

Overall, Trougakos says, while there hasn’t been much research on micro-breaks and performance, science suggests that short breaks are important. That includes studies with an ergonomics angle, which have found that resting your eyes and stretching is necessary to avoid eye strain and skeletal fatigue—discomforts that can distract and drain workers. Not taking sufficient breaks can also negatively affect workers’ sleep quality and life outside of work, and gradually lead them to feel burned out. Studies suggest highly productive employees tend to work in relatively short spurts, with long breaks—according to one study published by a productivity tracker company, spending 52 minutes working for every 17 minutes of break. “The idea is: you don’t work more to be more productive; you work smarter to be more productive,” Trougakos says.

Ideal breaks

The breaks you need might depend on what you’re doing; for instance, activities you enjoy might drain you less than a task you hate or that causes you a lot of stress. Trougakos suggests that you work for about 90 minutes, then take a break of 15 to 20 minutes. Over the course of that working period, you’d also be taking micro-breaks. Trougakos suggests a short stretch break every 20 or 30 minutes, as well as a break to “get away from the task” somewhere in the middle of those 90 minutes.

What is the best way for you to relax during short breaks? While there’s evidence that some things are good for everyone, like stretching, relaxing, or light to moderate physical activity (think: taking a walk), Trougakos says, the best break depends on an individual’s preferences. An extrovert may choose to have a cup of coffee with colleagues, while an introvert might prefer to read a book outside. He says that the key to your freedom is having control over how you spend your time.

Trougakos acknowledges, however that managers and businesses might be nervous about allowing employees to take multiple breaks. Flexibility is key—employees have different needs for breaks, which might vary depending on the task or even from day to day. Trougakos claims that hybrid work schedules have given workers and organizations a unique opportunity to explore new opportunities and maximize their productivity. While permitting break flexibility might feel counterintuitive to companies, it actually fits with what most employers value: to “get people to be fully productive, but also be healthy and have a balanced life,” Trougakos says.

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