How to Take a Break at Work to Minimize Burnout

In today's fast-paced work environment, taking breaks might seem counterintuitive, but it's essential for maintaining productivity and safeguarding your mental health. The constant pressure to meet deadlines and achieve targets can lead to burnout, which negatively impacts both employees and employers.

Key takeaways:

Why taking breaks at work is important

Many individuals perceive taking breaks as unproductive or a sign of laziness. However, that cannot be farther from the truth.

Our brains are not designed to maintain constant focus for extended periods of time. Our brain’s natural rhythm is to cycle between periods of heightened focus and rest. This suggests that our brains work best when we foster and align with our natural cognitive rhythm.

Taking breaks during your workday allows for this natural rhythm. Multiple studies have shown that regular breaks at work can significantly enhance focus, creativity, and overall job satisfaction.

In contrast, studies have found that prolonged work without breaks leads to increased stress levels, reduced motivation, and decreased overall job satisfaction. Over time, increased stress, lack of motivation, and reduced professional efficacy can lead to burnout.

Avoiding burnout

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is a result of prolonged stress due to workplace demands. The term “burnout” was created to specifically describe the long-term effects of increased workplace stressors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon and hazard due to its negative effects on mental health and productivity. Burnout in the workplace may cause serious concerns when it comes to brain functioning, such as memory loss, attention/concentration issues, and heightened anxiety and emotional reactivity.

To combat burnout, it's crucial to recognize its early warning signs and take preventative measures. Be on the lookout for some of these common symptoms:

  • Constant fatigue and lack of motivation
  • Increased irritability and reduced patience
  • Decline in job performance and satisfaction
  • Feeling overwhelmed by even minor tasks
  • Neglecting personal care and interests outside of work

Many studies have shown that taking regular breaks can serve as a powerful antidote to burnout. Breaks that are cognitive, emotional, and physical in nature seem to be the most beneficial at, and outside, work.

The benefits of a work break

Taking time away from work in any capacity has a range of benefits that contribute to mental well-being and job satisfaction.

You may only consider vacations, weekends, and evenings after work as breaks. They are, and they have their own benefits. However, what about the benefits of quick breaks at work?

Specifically, breaks taken during working hours have been shown to have the following advantages:

  • Increases productivity
  • Improves mental health
  • Increases job satisfaction overall
  • Restores focus and attention
  • Reevaluation of short-term goals to optimize productivity
  • Prevents decision fatigue
  • Increases creativity and innovation skills

Overall, breaks help to combat cognitive fatigue. Stopping and taking a quick break during a task allows your brain to briefly reset, returning it to its normal pre-stress levels. By stepping away from a task, you can actually boost your ability to come up with fresh solutions and novel approaches.

What an effective work break looks like

Not all breaks are created equal. The key to an effective break lies in the balance between relaxation and engagement.

Breaks such as scrolling through social media, eating lunch, or visiting the restroom might provide momentary distractions or rest, but they fail to refresh the mind and body in a meaningful way.

The goal of an effective break should always be to use a different part of the brain than what was being used before. Switching between activities usually helps with this process. When you activate another part of the brain, it allows the previously used part to reset, or deactivate, and rest.

Breaks that target your physical, cognitive, and social domains have been found to be the most beneficial.

For instance, a brisk walk around the office while engaging in a conversation with a colleague can energize all three domains. Or try practicing mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or meditation, which can help alleviate stress and enhance focus because they are engaging your physical and cognitive domains.

Taking breaks for mental health

While physical health breaks are more common, and often encouraged, it's equally vital to prioritize mental health breaks. Work-related stress can have profound effects on mental well-being, leading to anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems. Incorporating mental health breaks into your routine can help boost serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals most known to influence happiness, focus, and motivation.

Here are some tips on how to take a break that is specifically directed at your mental health:

  • Plan breaks ahead. Schedule breaks in your daily routine to ensure they are not overlooked.
  • Disconnect. Avoid work-related tasks during your breaks. Disconnecting mentally is as important as physically stepping away.
  • Hydrate and snack. Stay hydrated and opt for nourishing snacks that fuel your body and mind.
  • Engage socially. Interacting with colleagues can provide a sense of camaraderie and mental refreshment.
  • Practice mindful breathing. Practice deep breathing exercises to calm your mind and reduce stress.
  • Take nature breaks. If possible, spend your break in a natural environment.
  • Use mental health apps. Take a quick moment to use mental health apps that target different skills like guided meditation, breathing, or stress reduction.

Frequency and length of breaks

The optimal frequency and length of breaks varies depending on the nature of your work and your personal preferences.

Research has shown that even a simple 5-minute break can help boost your productivity.

Finding the right duration and frequency of breaks for you is done by trial and error. There is no set, finite guideline. However, here are some things we do know when it comes to the duration and frequency of break taking:

  • Taking a break every 30 minutes has shown to have positive physical effects.
  • Breaks taken in the earlier part of a work shift seem to be the most productive in terms of feeling refreshed and more energized.
  • Frequent, short breaks (roughly 5–10 minutes) are associated with higher levels of productivity and motivation.

Finding the right break schedule for your work style can be tricky. Try and experiment with taking a break every 3090 minutes until you find what fits best for you.

In the hustle and bustle of today's work culture, taking breaks is not a luxury; it's a necessity. Recognize that by incorporating well-planned breaks into your work routine, you're investing in your mental health, creativity, and productivity. The research is clear: breaks can prevent burnout and help you maintain a balanced, fulfilling work life.

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