Micro-breaks: Are they worth it?
By Madison Hanscom, PhD
Most of us know what it feels like to grind for 8 hours at work and feel drained at the end of the day. Micro-breaks are a way to keep us feeling refreshed throughout the day and avoid feeling exhausted later.
There are several types of work breaks that vary in length. There are vacations, weekends, the period of time between work shifts (the evening for most people), the lunch break, and then those little breaks we take during the workday, usually in between tasks. Those small, informal breaks during the workday are what researchers call “micro-breaks”. Depending on your job this might look like different. If you are a truck driver, it could mean stretching at the gas station for 3 minutes longer than it takes to pump the gas. If you are a student, it might be responding to a text message after writing a page of a term paper. If you are a barista, it might be sitting down in a chair for 2 minutes when the line of customers calms down.
There are debates about micro-breaks. Technically, when we are on the clock, this means we are being paid to work. Some would argue this is unethical to take unofficial paid breaks — that we are billing the company to do nothing. Others would argue that the absence of micro-breaks would be unethical — that it is ridiculous to expect someone to cognitively or physically be working for 8 hours straight without burning out.
Regardless of what you believe, the evidence suggests that micro-breaks are great for productivity, end of the day well-being, less negative emotions about work, and increased attention (1,2,3). Let’s take air traffic controllers for instance. There are jobs like this that require constant vigilance or someone can get seriously hurt out in the field. It might require consistent, sustained focus for hours at a time to look for visual changes on a monitor. Individuals in jobs such as these (who monitor real time data with critical decisions) were interviewed by researchers about taking micro breaks. They reported these breaks are important for their psychological resources of energy and attention (3). What did they do during these breaks? It varied, but activities included eating a snack, taking a personal call, and stretching.
Are you a leader?
• Consider micro-breaks as something that is important for employee wellbeing. Encourage micro-breaks and give specific suggestions for length (e.g., 5 mins), activity (e.g., stretch), and other helpful information (e.g., depending on the nature of the work, they might need to have someone cover for them; suggestions for when to take them) so employees know how to take these breaks effectively.
• Research shows that taking micro-breaks keeps your workers safer and more productive. It is a prevention tool. For instance, in a study of workers in a meatpacking plant, an intervention introducing micro-breaks significantly reduced the level of discomfort employees experienced during the workday (4). A similar study was done with surgeons — micro breaks increased perceived physical performance and mental focus (5).
• Micro-breaks might not look the same for employees with different job requirements. For instance, those in physical jobs (long periods of standing for instance) might need a physical micro-break, whereas employees in cognitively demanding jobs might need a mental micro-break.
• Micro-breaks are there to complement the other mandated breaks like lunch. These should not replace already existing recovery times.
Are you an employee?
• Consider work politics and the culture of your company before you start taking micro-breaks. If it is frowned upon to check your phone at work, consider a different micro-break like a breathing relaxation technique or a stretch.
• Try having a water bottle at your desk at all times. This will not only keep you hydrated, but it will have you getting up to take more bathroom breaks.
• Depending on the work you do, it might be helpful to set reminders for breaks. This mostly applies to people working in jobs where there are ergonomic implications. I like to set reminders when I am doing really repetitive tasks to stretch occasionally, because sometimes it is difficult to remember. If I am doing knowledge work, I don’t set reminders, I just take a quick micro-break between tasks when it feels natural to take a cognitive break.
• If you work at a computer, micro-breaks are a great way to reduce eye strain (look away from your computer off into the distance 20 feet away) and lower back pain (try a stretch). For more tips and details on this, please see the following suggestions from Stanford University (6).
• Repetitive work can feel like a break when you’re doing highly cognitive work. Try scheduling monotonous work (e.g., data entry) during your day to create a break when completing work that requires a lot of focus to give your brain a rest.
• Think of ways to break responsibly. Don’t let micro-breaks turn into macro-breaks!
Resource depletion has major safety and productivity implications. At Propulo Consulting, we care about the health and wellbeing of all workers. We partner with you to improve the world of work using the latest insights from research. Our team has the expertise to help your business build a safer and healthier culture.
(1) Kim, S., Park, Y., & Headrick, L. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103, 772–786.
(2) Kim, S., Park, Y., & Niu, Q. (2017). Micro-break activities at work to recover from daily work demands. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38, 28–44.
(3) Bennett, A. A., Gabriel, A. S., & Calderwood, C. (2019). Examining the interplay of micro-break durations and activities for employee recovery: A mixed-methods investigation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
(4) Genaidy, A. M., Delgado, E., & Bustos, T. (1995). Active microbreak effects on musculoskeletal comfort ratings in meatpacking plants. Ergonomics, 38(2), 326-336.
(5) Park, A. E., Zahiri, H. R., Hallbeck, M. S., Augenstein, V., Sutton, E., Yu, D., … & Bingener, J. (2017). Intraoperative “micro breaks” with targeted stretching enhance surgeon physical function and mental focus. Annals of surgery, 265(2), 340-346.
(6) Stanford link https://ehs.stanford.edu/topic/ergonomics/microbreaks