It’s important to take regular breaks from work, but in recent years, many North American workers have reported skipping breaks entirely. Even remote employees working from home feel guilty taking breaks, and often skip meals as a result.
Yet according to a new systematic review paper from Simon Fraser University, work breaks play a crucial role in fostering employee well-being and performance. The review was led by Zhanna Lyubykh, an assistant professor of Management and Organization Studies at the Beedie School of Business, and was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
With many full-time employees in North America now working in a remote or hybrid capacity, finding a healthy work-life balance — including regular breaks — can be tricky. Lyubykh, along with colleagues from York University and the University of Calgary, wanted to learn more about the importance of breaks taken during the work day.
“While research has documented the beneficial effects of after-work recovery, it has focused far less on the recovery that happens while at work in the form of work breaks,” the authors explained in their paper.
In particular, while previous studies from different scientific disciplines have investigated the importance of work breaks, the authors were interested in combining these results to obtain an overall picture of employee well-being.
To do this, they carried out a review of 83 studies from different scientific fields. This included occupational health psychology, nursing, and ergonomics, among others.
Overall, the team found that work breaks have a positive effect on both physical and mental well-being. Employees who took breaks of 10 minutes or longer during their work days reported decreased levels of stress, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive irritation. They also experienced less back pain.
Interestingly, the studies also revealed that what employees did on their breaks mattered more than how long those breaks were. While the overwhelming majority of employees (97%) spent their breaks browsing social media, the team found that social media use actually decreased employees’ creativity throughout the rest of their work day.
On the other hand, exercising during work breaks improved employees’ levels of physical well-being. Socializing during work breaks improved employees’ levels of mental well-being — as long as they didn’t talk about work-related matters while socializing.
Location was also important when it came to reaping the greatest rewards from a break. Employees who took their breaks outdoors reported feeling more restored than those who chose to stay inside.
Lyubykh hopes that these results will encourage managers to change the culture around workplace breaks, as well as provide ideas for more effective breaks. Employees may feel guilty about taking them, but studies agree that breaks are crucial when it comes to employee well-being.
“Organizations can help by introducing unstructured break periods that allow employees to take breaks as needed,” Lyubykh suggested in a press release.
Managers can also highlight the importance of breaks for their employees, Lyubykh added.
“When employees see work breaks as useful and necessary, they are less likely to skip or shorten their break.”