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Choosing workday break activities to maximise energy and productivity

Research from Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business debunked some common break-time myths by unveiling when, where and how to plan the most beneficial daily escapes from the job.
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In January 2015, Real Business’s Zen Terrelonge reported that only 29 per cent of workers in the UK are taking a proper lunch break each day.

He further revealed: “Even when breaks are being taken, they’re not always legitimate. The data revealed 42 per cent of people respond to calls and 40 per cent reply to emails in their lunch hour, while 46 per cent said they rarely do something relaxing.”

This not only puts health at risk, but the company may also suffer a lack of productivity due to lack of performance.

With this in mind, Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu, associate professors of management at Hankamer School of Business, examined the characteristics of employee workday break activities with 95 employees across five work days. In addition, they tested the recovery process by which workday break activities influenced employee performance and wellbeing.

“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.”

Read more about the UK’s lack of break time and how to increase productivity:

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 replenished 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 revealed. “Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective.”

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 the statement true. 

“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.

The employee survey showed that  the recovery of energy, concentration and motivation following a “better break” led workers to experience less somatic symptoms – including headaches, eyestrain and lower back pain.

These employees also experienced increased job satisfaction and engagement, as well as a decrease in emotional exhaustion (burnout).

While the study was unable to pinpoint an exact length of time for a better workday break, 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.

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

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

Real Business