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4 things to know about workday breaks

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If you give employees a mid-morning break, your business may well benefit for the rest of the day.

So concludes a study — albeit with a small sample population — of workday breaks by Baylor University.

Research by Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu, associate professors of management at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, asked 95 employees to chart their daily breaks over a five-day workweek.

An analysis of the 959 documented breaks found that the most effective for restorative purposes were those taken in mid-morning, thus, according to the researchers, dispelling the notion that lunch and afternoon breaks are really best for employees and for profitability.

“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. ”

What’s a break? The definition used in the study was “any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email or socializing with coworkers, not including bathroom breaks.”

Here are four key findings about workday breaks from the study: 

1. The most beneficial time to take a workday break is mid-morning.

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


2. “Better breaks” incorporate activities that employees prefer.

And sometimes, that includes discussing or performing work — which is generally considered non-relaxing and non-restorative. Yet this study found no evidence to differentiate between work-related and non-work-related break activities.

“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.

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3. People who take “better breaks” experience better health and increased job satisfaction.

The restorative nature of the break is the key, this study found. When people come back to work feeling renewed, they are generally healthier and happier.

“These employees also experienced increased job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior as well as a decrease in emotional exhaustion (burnout),” the study reported.

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4. Longer breaks are good, but it’s beneficial to take frequent short breaks.

This is kind of like the meals research — a good, healthy, hearty meal will sustain a person, but smaller and more frequent meals have been shown to lead to better health and emotional outcomes long term.

“More short breaks were associated with higher resources, suggesting that employees should be encouraged to take more frequent short breaks to facilitate recovery,” the study said.

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

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