Give me a break: Study shows that breaks improve overall health and performance

Breaks have an impact on overall health, job satisfaction and employee productivity, study shows. There are two important factors that influence the value of a break: what you do on your break and when you take your break. The study was done by two Baylor business professors. Photo credit: Penelope Shirey

It’s time to tell the boss that breaks are, in fact, a necessary part of production, since a recent study by two Baylor business professors proves that better breaks do have an impact on overall health, job satisfaction and the productivity of employees.

“The most important thing is you choose something you enjoy doing, so it will help you recover most effectively,” said Dr. Cindy Wu, associate professor of management. “Secondly, the timing of the break also matters. We tend to think we keep going until we need a break, but we found the most effective time to take a break is mid-morning rather than when you feel exhausted in the afternoon.”

Wu and Dr. Emily Hunter, associate professor of management, co-authored the study “Give Me a Better Break: Choosing Workday Break Activities to Maximize Resource Recovery.” They concluded that in order for employees to perform at their prime, the breaks that they take during the day are crucial. Lots of little breaks are more beneficial than working until the point of exhaustion and then taking one big break, according to the study.

“It’s really all about when you take that break and how many resources like energy, motivation levels and concentration levels. How much you have at that point and the more exhausted you are, the harder it is to recover those resources and replenish your supply of resources,” Hunter said. “But if you can take a break early in the morning, you’re less exhausted. You’ve only depleted a little bit of the resources, so it’s easier to get them back.”

There is little empirical research on workday breaks, Hunter said. She and Wu were inspired by a project that was one of the first of its kind, looking at workday breaks. They decided to explore the different types of activities employees did during their breaks and what kinds of activities would prove to be most effective.

“We wanted to use a better methodology, so we used this methodology called experience sampling method ,which is very much in-the-moment daily assessments,” Hunter said. “Multiple times a day, every time the employees took a break, they responded to a brief survey, so we got a week’s worth of data.”

Wu said that 100 Baylor employees were tracked for a week, asked to fill out a short survey after their break telling what they did, how long the break was and how they felt before and after taking the break. The most important factor that came out of the study is that employees should do what they enjoy doing most during the break, Wu said. Other factors such as going outside don’t matter as much as taking more frequent breaks and doing less strenuous activities during breaks, according to the study.

Hunter said they also found short breaks throughout the day are more effective than one big long break, which builds on some previous studies in ergonomics. The study encourages employees to be more proactive and make a plan for breaks rather than waiting until they’re exhausted, Hunter said. Wu said that what is interesting about this study is that it counters the social norm, where people are ready to work until lunch time. “The analogy we like to use is we are not our cell phone, we don’t wait until the battery is almost depleted to recharge,” Wu said. “The more proper analogy is drinking water throughout the day. Don’t wait until you feel so thirsty because you’re already dehydrated. Pace throughout the day.”

Hunter said the more employees replenish their resources throughout the day, the less eye pain, back pain and headaches they may have. Through looking at the entire span of data, more effective breaks lead to more citizenship behavior. By doing something they really enjoy rather than work-related stuff during the break, they are more likely to have a positive attitude and a willingness to do more work.

“We’re also showing managers and leaders of organizations that breaks are important because they lead to these important outcomes,” Hunter said.