Tech startups are famous for installing nap pods and break rooms to attract Millennial workers. But most people work in offices where slipping off for a snooze or a foosball match would put a big dent in their promotion prospects. Even for self-employed or remote workers who don’t have a boss peering over their shoulder, taking anything more than a lunch break during work hours is anathema.
But this “all work and no play” ethos may be harming employee health and productivity. The latest evidence suggests that taking short breaks during the work day makes employees happier and better at their jobs.
A recent study on call center employees found that taking short breaks to relax or socialize increased employees’ positive affect—basically, their on-the-job outlook, energy and enthusiasm—which translated to measurable gains in sales performance.
“Micro-breaks didn’t directly benefit performance, but they did so indirectly through their impact on the employees’ positive emotions,” says YoungAh Park, coauthor of that study and an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. Another of Park’s recent studies linked micro-breaks with reduced stress, which in turn lowered rates of negative mood and emotion at the end of the work day.
A micro-break, Park says, is “a totally voluntary mini-break that employees can take whenever they need.” This is different from a lunch break or some other “formal” respite decreed by an employer, she says.
Park is reluctant to say how long an optimal micro-break should last or how often it should occur, since her studies did not measure these factors. But she says most people know when they’re feeling frazzled, worn down or overwhelmed. Her research suggests that, at those times, taking a short break to chat with a coworker or listen to music will lead to better outcomes—in terms of stress, mood and performance—than staying glued to a work task.
More research on micro-breaks supports her recommendations. A 2016 study from Baylor University found that taking breaks during the work day leads to improvements in energy, concentration and task motivation—as well as higher job satisfaction. “We also found health benefits,” says Emily Hunter, first author of the study and an associate professor of management at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. People who took frequent short breaks experienced fewer headaches, less eye strain and lower rates of back pain, she says.
Hunter compares micro-breaks to proper hydration. Drinking small amounts of water throughout the day is more beneficial than drinking a bunch of H2O in one sitting—or forgoing water altogether. In the same way, taking frequent mini-breaks may keep your well of workplace concentration, energy and enthusiasm from running dry.
Apart from the immediate mood and productivity perks linked to micro-breaks, research from Harvard Business School has linked short workplace breaks to lower rates of employee burnout, which could in turn boost employee retention—another incentive for employers.
On the other hand, too-frequent or ill-timed breaks can also tank employee performance, that Harvard study warns. Some tasks require deep and sustained focus. And researchers who study workplace multitasking and distraction say even short diversions in the middle of a task can lead to a 50% drop in productivity.
So what does an ideal micro-break look like?
First of all, it should be unscheduled and informal, says Hannes Zacher, a professor and chair of work and organizational psychology at Leipzig University in Germany who has studied the benefits of micro-breaks. He recommends taking microbreaks in between work tasks—not in the middle of a task—to avoid interrupting workflow and concentration.
A microbreak could last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, he says, and it should involve healthy and relaxing activities. “We found that going for a quick walk or having a friendly chat with a colleague is better for employees’ momentary well-being and motivation than, for instance, smoking or making a to-do list,” he says.
Anything work-related is a no-no. And when it comes to checking your phone or spending time online, the evidence is mixed. “Our research shows that using social media or making personal calls or emails during breaks does not have negative effects and, for most people, is associated with recovery from work demands,” he says. But he says the opposite is true if a person is checking their phone every five minutes, or spending long periods (roughly, 15 minutes every hour) on social media. Ditto if a person tends to feel anxious or angry after spending time on their phones or online.
“I would always recommend that people engage in physical activities like going for a walk, or direct social activity like chatting with a coworker, as these had the most beneficial effects,” he says.
For your own well-being and for the health of your businesses, it may be time to start thinking about short breaks as an important part of your work day.