It usually occurs in the afternoon, roughly around 3pm, when those remaining hours in the workday somehow move at a glacial pace that sees them stretch on for an eternity. Five Zoom calls in to the day, we’re knackered and that salad we packed may have made for a healthy lunch, but now we’re requiring straight sugar in candy form simply to keep our eyes level with the monitor and not slump into our chairs with the lack of bodily awareness you’d expect of someone nodding off on a flight, only to be jolted back to reality by a loud cough from a colleague or phone call.
Fatigue can strike anytime throughout the day but for most of us, it’s inevitable that at some point during the work day, it will come for us. And while caffeine helps in the morning, it’s not the best strategy for those late afternoon slumps where energy seems to leave us like water through an open drain. According to researchers, not all hope is lost. If we just take micro breaks throughout the day, we could not only reduce fatigue, but boost wellbeing and productivity in the process.
According to the study’s lead author, Patricia Albulescu of the research from the West University of Timisoara in Romania, powering through daily tasks without taking any breaks can actually lead to greater consequences for our mental and emotional wellbeing. As she explained, “When taking a short break when we feel the need to, we can notice that new ideas start to flow easily again, or effortlessly can pay attention to what we do.”
Published in the journal PLOS One, researchers analysed data from 19 articles, involving 22 separate studies and a total of 2,335 participants, with some studies involving students and others employees. Participants were asked to carry out a task, ranging from typing to memory tests, broken up by a short break of between 8 seconds and 10 minutes. For some, this was utilised to watch video clips while others undertook physical activity.
Participants were then asked to complete self-reported assessments which varied between studies, but all of which sought to determine how tired or full of energy and enthusiasm they felt. In some instances, productivity was also measured. The results were then compared against participants who had either had no break or followed their usual routine.
While researchers found that when analysing performance, it was hard to see definite results as benefits were only evident for clerical work or creative exercises, but not cognitively demanding tasks. However the team found that the longer the break, the greater the boost to performance. The researchers also noted the limitations of the study, which failed to analyse things like anxiety, and failed to indicate how many sub-10 minute breaks one should take or what best to do in that time.
What is apparent however, is the fact that employees feeling a need to be “always on” and visible led to a pressure to keep working, making them more fatigued and, in the long run, impacting wellbeing. As Albulescu suggests, the mindset needs to shift and focus on autonomy in work tasks so one is judged not on the speed at which something is done, but the quality of their work. “Managers can encourage such environments where taking a short break to gaze out of the window for a couple of seconds does not mean being lazy and skipping work,” she said.
According to Brendan Burchell, a professor in social sciences at the University of Cambridge, while short breaks are beneficial to productivity and wellbeing in the workplace, more important than anything are the long term impacts like eye problems and muscular-skeletal illnesses that affect those who sit at a computer all day. As Burchell told The Guardian, “The short term effects that are picked up [in this study] are, I think, trivial compared to the longer term effects of people’s working lives on their wellbeing.”