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Not All Work Breaks Are Created Equal

Not All Work Breaks Are Created Equal

Taking a break during work is usually a necessity as we struggle with stress reduction, eye strain, or boredom. A new study has some surprising findings on what makes a break “good,” the best time to take a break, and the optimal length of a break.

Work breaks may be in a variety of formats including coffee breaks, lunch breaks, a break to visit with coworkers, or perhaps an exercise break that includes a late afternoon walk around the building. Yet despite the universality of taking work breaks, the benefits gained from a particular type of break or the overall effectiveness of a break have not been formally evaluated.

Researchers scrutinized work breaks and looked for answers to the following questions: Which break does a better job of boosting energy, aiding concentration, and increasing motivation? In short, which type of break is best?

In the empirical study, “Give Me a Better Break: Choosing Workday Break Activities to Maximize Resource Recovery,” Emily Hunter, Ph.D., and Cindy Wu, Ph.D., associate professors of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, uncovered several factors that can improve the effectiveness of breaks.

As published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the authors provide suggestions on when, where, and how to plan the most beneficial daily escapes from the job. The research also debunks some common break-time myths.

Researchers surveyed 95 employees (ages 22-67) over a five-day workweek. Each person was asked to document each break they took during that time. Breaks were defined as “any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email, or socializing with coworkers, not including bathroom breaks.”

Hunter and Wu chronicled and analyzed a total of 959 break surveys, an average of two breaks per person per day. They say the results of the study benefit both managers and employees.

“We took some of our layperson hypotheses about what we believed were helpful in a break and tested those empirically in the best way possible,” Hunter said.

“This is a strong study design with strong analyses to test those hypotheses. What we found was that a better workday break was not composed of many of the things we believed. ”

Key findings of the study include:

1. The most beneficial time to take a workday break is mid-morning.

Hunter and Wu found that rather than the typical culture of working hard all morning only to take a lunch-hour or mid-afternoon break, a respite earlier in the workday replenishes more resources — energy, concentration, and motivation.

“We found that when more hours had elapsed since the beginning of the work shift, fewer resources and more symptoms of poor health were reported after a break,” the study says. “Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective.”

2. “Better breaks” incorporate activities that employees prefer.

A common belief exists that doing things that are non-work-related are more beneficial, Hunter explained. Based on the study, there was no evidence to prove that non-work-related activities were more beneficial. Simply put, preferred break activities are things you choose to do and things you like to do. These could also include work-related tasks.

“Finding something on your break that you prefer to do — something that’s not given to you or assigned to you — are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery, and help you come back to work stronger,” Hunter said.

3. People who take “better breaks” experience better health and increased job satisfaction.

The employee surveys showed that recovery of resources — energy, concentration, and motivation — following a “better break” (earlier in the day, doing things they preferred) led workers to experience less somatic symptoms, including headache, eyestrain, and lower back pain after the break.

These employees also experienced increased job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior as well as a decrease in emotional exhaustion (burnout), the study shows.

4. Longer breaks are good, but it’s beneficial to take frequent short breaks.

While the study was unable to pinpoint an exact length of time for a better workday break (15 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.), the research found that more short breaks were associated with higher resources, suggesting that employees should be encouraged to take more frequent short breaks to facilitate recovery.

Researchers believe breaks are an essential intervention to help a person stay sharp and energized.

“Unlike your cellphone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to zero percent before you charge it fully to 100 percent, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day,” Hunter said.

Source: Baylor University/EurekAlert

Not All Work Breaks Are Created Equal

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Not All Work Breaks Are Created Equal. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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