Why breaks at work matter

breaks at work

Scale-ups. Your hair's on fire, but at least you can stick your head out of the window! A wild ride that keeps many of us coming back for more. The scale-ups I have helped build have been the most rewarding and challenging experiences in my life. One thing they all have in common is the intensity. Intensity of focus, purpose and results. That said, despite continual accomplishments, I often felt like I was further behind for every step forward. Sound familiar? How long is your list of priorities? For many of us, we return to start-ups and scale-ups because of the addictive energy that can only come from building something important together with a team on a common mission.

This urgency makes me reflect on how many can feel as we execute. How well do we manage feeling behind? I remember one company where I was annoyed that team members were taking smoke breaks. No matter how much we had to do, they eased out of the office for a break. If I disregard the health risks of smoking, it is remarkable how I undervalued the positive impact of breaks. Often times, I often thought that I was too busy for breaks. I even thought that breaks reduced the team's efficiency. Little did I realize how it reduced errors and improved effectiveness! Why? I lacked the evidence to show that a team with higher wellbeing and reduced stress could deliver better results. Naively, I focused only on the results rather than how we achieved the results. 

As of last year, I am back in the "game" at an exciting start-up on a very meaningful and personal mission to make wellbeing easy. It is my chance to help other leaders learn from my past mistakes and make more informed decisions about team performance and wellbeing. Gone are the days when biased engagement surveys dictate the truth. Like pro athletes, the best teams understand the actual wellbeing and mental resilience of their teams. The perfect time to review a talk I had with Oxford PhD psychologist, Dr. Kerstin Jeding, around the basics of stress, physical activity, sleep and daytime rest.

Daytime rest, what is that?

"It’s about taking breaks and pauses during the workday, as well as, the evening", Kerstin explains. "Really? But, I’m paid to work, not rest, and I have too many critical priorities to take a break", I say. That gets her started on something she does annoyingly well: she quotes research. A Swedish doctoral thesis from last year proved that something as simple as taking brief breaks during work can increase wellbeing at work in already healthy people. And on average, your mood in the evening is better if you take breaks during your workday. It’s hard to argue with an Oxford PhD scholar who’s worked her whole career with work-related stress. She can’t stop herself now that she got going. You know what’s the most important part of an intervention for someone who is stressed or at risk of burnout? Balancing stress with rest and recovery. 

No time for breaks at work?

Sure, I understand that breaks are beneficial, especially if you are experiencing physical signs of stress. I also understand you need to sleep well if you are busy, and recover between your work days - I won’t argue with that! But healthy people sneaking out for breaks instead of contributing to the goal?

"You see, breaks are not a cost, they’re an investment", Kerstin explains. "Breaks during work are investments in health and wellbeing, and such investments typically have an ROI of 5 or more." 

I’m still not convinced. It wasn’t my future wellbeing I was concerned with when I was busy, it was getting the job done, and breaks seem to be, well, doing nothing for my KPI’s. Being too polite to smile at my naivety, Kerstin instead keeps preaching with the relentless optimism of a missionary in an unenlightened land. Do you know that a single breathing pause will make you respond healthier to stress, no matter if you take that pause before or after that stress occurred? It will also reduce your anxiety and make you more alert which means you’ll work better just after such a break.

Now, she can see that she is sparking some kind of interest with that very last one, so she goes on: "Shane, in your job, you need your cognitive abilities to stay sharp throughout your day, right?" "Eh, yeah", I respond. "Good, then take breaks! Your decision-making ability is a finite resource that needs recharging. Your natural focus span is much shorter, not nearly a full workday, or even a half workday! Companies have shown statistics from their top 10% most productive employees, and guess what they have in common - they take breaks! They don’t work more than their colleagues, they take more breaks, and that’s what’s making them so efficient." Now I’m interested. Can I get more done if I take MORE breaks? How do I do it?!?!

4 ways to improve recovery during the workday

In summary, Kerstin begins just to let me understand that she can quote another long list of research to corroborate each point, it’s really easy: 

  1. Take the break before you need it (yup, before you feel fatigued)
  2. Take a break from any work you do and switch off mentally too from work
  3. Step away from your workstation (as it helps with 2)
  4. Choose an activity that could be recovering for you at this moment, such as: 
    • Movement break
    • Fresh air through a window or outdoors
    • Mindful activity (or a mindfulness exercise)
    • Winding down (or a relaxation exercise)

Kerstin’s advice is to take at least one longer break such as your lunch break, and sprinkle the rest of your day with 1-5 minute microbreaks. I ask: "Is that what those top 10% productive people did?" 

"No, the most efficient took even more breaks, approaching 25% of their work time: They worked on average for 52 minutes, had a 17 minute break and then started over again", Kerstin responds. 

Sounds too good to be true, right? Being more healthy, and at the same time, getting more done by taking more and longer breaks during work? Well, in the interest of science, of course I’ll try it. Since I am crazy busy, and need to be efficient, this is the perfect time to start!!

Do you want to know more about the benefits of taking breaks and how to start? Don't hesitate to contact us - we would love to talk!

About the Author

15+ years of experience in B2B SaaS Customer Success and Sales including CCO & VP CS. SLT member taking two B2B SaaS companies through hyper-growth and PE Exits (from 70 to 300 and 25 to 100 employees in 2 years)

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