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Take a Break: How Smokers Always Find Time, But We Think We Can’t?

     “Our operators can’t take a work break. They are monitoring critical operations.”

     “Unless you’re a smoker” (chimes in a second participant, followed by a lot of head nodding).

That was part of the discussion during my keynote on “Impact of Shiftwork on Sleep Cycles, Energy, & Weight” at an annual meeting of the Nuclear Medical Resource Professionals. Those in attendance included the members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee. In addition, we had nurses, physician assistants, and doctors who are responsible to ensure that the nuclear reactor operators, security force and fire brigades are medically qualified to perform their critical duties.

So, why is it that smokers always find time to take a work break, yet the rest of us think we can’t? Sure, these people are in critical operations. But if smokers are able to pull away from their stations, I’m guessing that others can - and should, too. Yet, for many reasons we are often hesitant to do so.

Benefits of Short Recovery Breaks

Repeat after me, “Taking a work break is not a waste of time.” Let me share with you why a short reprieve can actually increase workplace productivity.

  1. Reduce errors and accidents. Risk of errors and accidents increase as time at task increases without a break. One study compared taking breaks every 2, 4, or 6 hours during a 12-hour shift. After working 6 hours without a recovery break, risks were 50% greater than when participants took a break every 2 hours.
  1. Increase productivity. While it’s easy to get swept up in the idea that taking time away from our desk means that it will take longer to do what we need to do, this isn’t the case. Taking a work break helps us avoid making errors, keeps us creative, and improves our overall mental performance. A study from Texas A&M University (my alma mater BTW) compared call center workers who sat and those who had a “stand-capable” desk. That means they had the option to stand, but no requirement. Turns out the productivity of the stand-capable desk users significantly increased over time, from ∼23% in the 1st month to ∼53% over the next 6 months.
  1. Recharge alertness, mood, energy. You know how when we exercise, our muscles get fatigued? But, have you noticed that after a short break, we’re able to continue once again. Mental concentration works the same way. Our brain gets fatigued after sustained use and benefits from a rest period. And new research suggests that taking frequent movement breaks also improves energy, mood, cravings, and cognitive function.
  1. Refresh outlook. Have you ever gone into a place that has a strong smell or loud noise…only to find that, overtime, you stop noticing it? This is because the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound, or feeling that remains constant. It’s called “deconditioning.” Well, the same thing happens with a challenging task. And, a short recovery break can help us to come back to the task with a new and refreshed outlook.
  1. Improve decision-making ability. While it’s tempting to put your nose to the grindstone to get things done, remember that mental concentration works similarly to a muscle in that it becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest break. And, just as taking a rest between workouts or even sets of weights helps to make us stronger, taking recovery breaks during the day will make us more productive. One study found that decision-making process becomes less effective approaching break time and improves back to normal after the break.
  1. Improve health. The research is clear – sitting too long is bad for our health. The more you sit, the greater your risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and death from all causes. Research suggests breaking up prolonged sitting reduces postprandial glucose (that’s how high your blood sugar goes up after a mean) and insulin responses. And all it took was a two-minute movement break every 20 minutes!
  1. Relieve pain and discomfort. Breaks also prevent repetitive strain injuries to our eyes, wrists, neck, and back. Remember that call center study mentioned previously? Nearly 75% percent of those working at stand-capable workstations experienced decreased body discomfort.

How Often Should I Take a Break?

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, one of the researchers who connected REM sleep with dreaming, suggested that our body continually experiences 90-minute cycles in alertness, not only during sleep, but during the day as well.

That’s why it’s often suggested that we take a break every 90 minutes or so. Of course, it’s different for different people, and for different types of tasks…the more difficult the tasks, the more often we need to break.

Our Energy Level Runs in Cycles

We experience 90-minute cycles of alertness throughout the day flowing from high to low and back to high. Our lowest period during the daytime is between the afternoon hours of 1-3 p.m.

Short recovery breaks every 90 minutes can reduce fatigue, improve productivity, and reduce risk of errors or accidents. Breaks are especially important when work is demanding or monotonous.

How Long to Break?

Breaks don't have to be long. Just 5-15 minutes breaks have been shown to reduce fatigue, improve productivity, and reduce risk of errors or accidents.

What to Do During Recovery Breaks?

While it’s tempting to check on social media, watch your favorite show or silly cat video, or play a video game, here are some other activities that are more likely to rest your body and brain:

  • Change the scenery by taking a brief walk (even if it’s just the long way to the bathroom)
  • Get up and intentionally move (a few flights of stairs, jumping jacks, stretches)
  • Change the mood (listen to some meditative music, daydream, or plan your next vacation)
  • Shine the light (bright-light therapy is very effective, especially during the winter months)
  • Take a mental break (read a fun article or book, or connect with a friend)
  • Nourish your body (eat a healthy snack containing at least 10g protein and around 15g carbs)
  • Drink up. Even 1-2% dehydration can make you feel fatigued. So stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Take a nap (naps are actually more effective than caffeine in rebooting your energy. Tell that to your boss…ok, maybe not :)

Stop thinking of taking a break as a “waste of time.” Taking recovery breaks throughout your day can help you increase your energy, productivity, and your sanity.

I’d love to her about your experiences. Do you take breaks during the workday? Does your company encourage taking breaks? Or are those that take breaks considered to be “slackers”? Send me your ideas of how we can change both personal beliefs about breaks and corporate policies

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