Why Does Taking a Break at Work Is Important?

Our modern work culture celebrates productivity through busyness and stress. However, the long-term effects of this mentality can have serious effects on our mental health and well-being, leading to burnout. Research shows that taking regular breaks throughout the workday can reduce stress, boost mental clarity, and improve productivity, enhancing our work experience and combatting stress and burnout.

Why taking breaks at work is important

Situations like work overload and a lack of control are key contributors to burnout and mental health issues. When overloaded with work, we don’t have time to rest and recover, which keeps cortisol (stress hormone) levels high. Similarly, if we don’t feel like we have agency in controlling our workload, we can feel helpless, which may lead to low mood and possibly depression.

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Research shows that even micro-breaks can help reduce stress and provide recovery for our brains and bodies. Micro-breaks are short breaks taken during the workday to give moments of recovery, which can improve performance and well-being. In fact, micro-breaks have been shown to increase vigor, reduce fatigue, and boost performance in some work-related tasks.

Taking breaks throughout the day can also help combat burnout, the state of feeling complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. Burnout is the end result of workplace imbalance, stress, and pressure. It most commonly happens in situations where we feel pressure to complete tasks and are trying to do too much, like at work and home.

Avoiding burnout

While burnout is not classified as a medical condition per se, it can have serious consequences on our physical and mental health. Workplace burnout, in particular, can have neurological effects like memory loss, attention/concentration issues, and heightened anxiety and emotional reactivity.

The best way to avoid burnout is to decrease the amount of stress you’re experiencing and recognize the signs that your stress may be getting the best of you. Taking preventative action is the most effective way to reduce the risk of reaching burnout.

While these may vary from profession and role, some of the symptoms of burnout include the following:

  • Lack of motivation and seeking goals
  • Feeling anxious and having consistently worrying thoughts
  • Decreased enjoyment at work and with other activities
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Constant fatigue and physical discomfort
  • Increased negativity about life and self

The benefits of a work break

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There is a range of benefits for taking a break during your workday, including increased productivity, decreased stress, better job satisfaction, and reduced burnout.

Specifically, taking breaks throughout the workday can offer the following advantages:

The benefits of a work break

Research also shows that taking short breaks can promote learning and memory of new skills. In a 2021 study, participants had to type a number sequence as many times as they could for 10 seconds, then took a 10-second break. The scientists found that the brain replayed the task 20 times faster during break periods than during the actual tasks. They also found that the learning and memory areas of the brain were active, which was a surprise. This suggests that wakeful rest can have benefits in learning new skills faster.

Different types of breaks at work

While breaks are beneficial, not all breaks are treated the same. For example, cigarette and coffee breaks are argued to be less beneficial because of the health implications of too much smoking and caffeine consumption.

The best breaks for your body and brain are those that promote healthy habits while giving your brain a chance to rest and potentially boost brain function.

Social media break

There is a lot of debate about the pros and cons of social media. While spending too much time on social media can be linked to loneliness, decreased life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, and depression, it may also foster social connections and reduce stress through engaging with friends and loved ones. Because of this complex relationship, fostering quality interactions and managing time spent on social media may help navigate its effects.

Creative break

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Breaks that involve creativity like listening to music, journaling, problem-solving games, drawing, and painting have many benefits to your brain function and mental health. Research shows that participating in creative activities may reduce anxiety and depression. Such activities may also enhance cognitive functions like problem-solving and critical thinking and promote a feeling of accomplishment and purpose — all of which can translate to the workplace.

Social interactions

Connecting with other colleagues and friends is another beneficial way to spend a break. Such interactions promote collaboration, knowledge sharing, and personal connection — all enhancing productivity. Co-working spaces, for instance, have been shown to significantly improve job productivity through a positive environment and increased social interactions.

Physical activity

The benefits of exercise go beyond physical preparedness. One study found that a 15-minute park walk at lunchtime increased concentration and energy levels in employees for the rest of the day. This was linked to the enjoyment experienced during the walk further boosting feelings of well-being.

Spending time in nature

Most humans have an innate appreciation of nature, and that is why we often feel so good after spending time outdoors. The benefits of spending time in parks, forests, and even our backyards can reduce stress, promote physical activity, as well as restore energy resources and social interaction. Additionally, time spent outside promotes concentration, improves mood, and reduces anxiety, fatigue, and cortisol levels.

How to take an effective break at work

How anyone perceives relaxation differs. Some may need more energy, while others seek ways to de-stress and slow down. Recognizing your needs is the first step to a rejuvenating break.

Here are some ideas for the best ways to ensure you have an effective break:

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  1. Carve out time between work projects. Taking a micro-break between tasks allows your brain to naturally transition from one task to another, optimizing productivity and focus.
  2. Find a time that works best for you. If you don’t have natural breaks, schedule a time at the start of your day for when to take a break from the office environment.
  3. Make a plan with a friend or colleague. This not only holds you accountable but also adds the benefit of connecting with someone socially.
  4. Have a list of ideas. Having some ideas on how to use your break can help optimize its effectiveness, as you won't need to spend time figuring out what to do.
  5. Have walking shoes ready to go. Having them out where you can see them is a good reminder to take a break and get moving.

Planning your breaks at work

Planning breaks and putting them into your calendar is one of the most effective ways to make sure you actually take them. They can range from short micro-breaks, like standing up and getting a cup of coffee or tea, to longer lunch breaks where you have the chance to connect with colleagues while having a nice meal.

And taking a break from work doesn't necessarily mean short periods during the workday. In fact, many people don't take vacations throughout the whole year. Prioritizing trips and longer periods away from work is another way to reduce stress, prevent burnout, improve your mood, and boost productivity.

Here are some of the best ways to spend different breaks to benefit your mental health and work satisfaction:

Type of breakLength of timeRecommended activities
Micro-break10–15 minutes- Meditation
- A walk around the block
- Stretching
- Getting a healthy snack
Lunch break1 hour- A walk at the local park
- Running
- Journaling
- Meeting with a friend
- Eating a nice meal
Short break15–30 minutes- Coffee/tea with a colleague
- Walking to the local park
- Mindfulness practices
Vacation1–7 days (or longer)- Staying in a hotel in your hometown
- Planning a trip to a place you've always wanted to go to
- Visiting friends or family you haven't seen in a while
- Planning an active trip involving yoga, hiking, skiing, or biking
- Learning something new

Tips on how to be more productive

While taking breaks is a great way to boost productivity at work, there are some other things you can do that support brain function and performance.

Strategies like the Pomodoro technique, which involves setting a timer to encourage focused time, are great ways to boost your productivity. These work in cycles of focused time and then short breaks, optimizing the brain’s natural cycle. There are a bunch of different types out there, so do some research to find the one that works best for you.

Many studies have shown the benefits of mindfulness on our mental health, including reducing stress, burnout, and mental distress while improving focus, compassion, and job satisfaction. When it comes to work performance, a regular mindfulness practice may significantly improve psychological well-being and personal performance.

Research shows that music may play a role in our performance at work. It turns out that music activates nearly all regions of the brain, including motor and emotional cortexes. The most effective way to use music is to choose tunes that make you feel good, won’t distract you with lyrics, and to take breaks during the day to give your brain a rest.

Green tea contains many beneficial phytochemicals, including L-theanine, which is known to support cognitive function. Research suggests that drinking green tea may reduce anxiety and perceived stress at work, as well as potentially improve mood and mental task performance.

In today's high-pressure work environments, taking regular breaks is essential for maintaining mental and physical well-being. By stepping away for even a short amount of time, we allow our minds to reset, which can reduce stress, boost productivity and creativity, and enhance job satisfaction. Embracing the power of breaks can significantly improve our health and efficiency, making us more effective in the long run.

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