“Our operators can’t take a break. They are monitoring critical operations.”
“Unless you’re a smoker” (chimes in a second participant, followed by a lot of head nodding).
This was part of the discussion during my recent keynote on “Impact of Shiftwork on Sleep Cycles, Energy, & Weight” at the annual meeting of the Nuclear Medical Resource Professionals. Those in attendance included the members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee, plus medical staff at the plants. That included 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 duties.
Why is it that smokers always find time to take breaks, 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 too. But for many reasons are hesitant to do so. Repeat after me, “Taking a break is not a waste of time.” A short reprieve can actually increase our productivity.
Benefits of Taking a Recovery Break
Short recovery breaks are powerful enough to:
- 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 break, risks were 50% greater than when participants took a break every 2 hours.
- 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 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) compared call center workers who sat and those who had a “stand-capable” desk (meaning they had the option to stand). 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.
- Recharge our alertness, energy, and mood. Mental concentration works similarly to a muscle in that it becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period. This is because the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound, or feeling that remains constant. This makes sense if you have ever experienced the deconditioning effect of a loud or annoying sound over a period of time. New research suggests that taking frequent movement breaks improves energy, mood, cravings, and cognitive function.
- Improve mood, willpower, and even decision-making ability. One study found that decision-making process becomes less effective approaching break time and improves back to normal after the break.
- Improve our health – and comfort. 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!
- Relieve pain and discomfort. Breaks also prevent repetitive strain injuries to our eyes, wrists, neck, and back. Remember that call center study mentioned above? Nearly 75% percent of those working at stand-capable workstations experienced decreased body discomfort.
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. Taking a 5-15 minute break every 90 minutes or so can reduce fatigue, improve productivity, and reduce risk of errors or accidents. Breaks are especially important when work is demanding or monotonous. Read another of my blogs about what to do on breaks here.
Tell me about your experiences about breaks where you work (email@example.com). I love incorporating these stories into my corporate and company presentations. Do you take breaks during the work day? Does your company encourage or discourage taking breaks? 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.