Good news for the office coffee klatch: Office workers who take short, frequent breaks during the workday have more stamina and fewer aches and pains when they return to work, a new study suggests.
Breaks are particularly re-energizing if workers spend the time doing something they enjoy, the study found.
Unlike cellphones that run optimally until their batteries die, people “have to charge more frequently before we deplete all the way,” explained Emily Hunter, associate professor of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas, and the study’s lead author.
The study doesn’t directly show that worker breaks cause more productivity on the job, but it does show a link between taking breaks and other important outcomes that employers may care about: higher job satisfaction; reduced emotional exhaustion; and greater efforts by employees to undertake work above-and-beyond their job description, the study authors said.
The research comes at a time when office workers face growing pressure to work longer hours, putting them at risk of burnout, experts said.
Only half of U.S. adults employed full-time work 40 or fewer hours a week, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. The average workweek is now 47 hours, with nearly one in five full-time workers clocking 60 hours or more, the Gallup poll revealed.
For many, taking breaks during the workday seems out of the question. Only one in five employees takes an actual lunch break, according to a 2012 Right Management survey of more than 1,000 North American workers.
That’s partly due to company culture, noted Christine Corbet, managing consultant in the New York City office of Right Management, a career management and organizational consulting unit of ManpowerGroup.
“If you have a boss that’s never taking breaks, it’s hard to feel like you can take one,” she said.
Federal law doesn’t require employers to offer lunch, coffee or rest breaks. However, most businesses must give nursing moms a break to express breast milk, under federal law. Some states have laws requiring lunch or rest breaks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Unionized employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement may also be entitled to take negotiated breaks.
But, little scientific research exists to show when, where and how employees can reap the most benefit from workday breaks.
To find out what makes for a “better break,” Hunter and co-author Cindy Wu, also from Baylor University, surveyed 95 employees from a single organization. They were between 22 and 67 years old, and most were female, the study said. They were surveyed over a five-day workweek.
After each break, workers completed short surveys about their break activity and well-being. The study controlled for how well employees slept the night before, how fatigued they felt in the morning and how energized they were before the break.
Employees took an average of two breaks per day, but there were days when some participants reported no break at all, the study authors said.
Researchers were not able to pinpoint the optimal number or length of breaks but found that timing is critical. The more hours that elapsed before a break, the less energized and the more symptoms of poor health workers reported when returning to the job. In other words, toiling through much of the workday before taking a breather is not as restorative as taking time out early in the day.
After a morning break, employees said they had more energy, more motivation to return to work and were better able to concentrate, Hunter said.
Early breaks also were associated with fewer symptoms — such as headaches, eyestrain and lower back pain — when employees returned to work, according to the study.
“There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done, but this [study] definitely opens the door to getting answers to some of those issues,” said John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto, who conducts research on so-called “work recovery.”
These days organizations want people to do more with less, Corbet said. “What we have to do is increasing. What this means is how we get it done needs to change, so that may be things like incorporating breaks,” she said.
In the sports arena, coaches rest their best players so that they’ll be at peak performance during critical times, Trougakos pointed out. Workers and their employers should be planning breaks, too, “so that you are marshalling and maintaining resources for what you need to do,” he said.
Unfortunately, many employers and even some employees don’t realize the toll of stress and burnout on people’s health and performance, Trougakos said. “We’re not robots,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor has more on meals and breaks.