The Better Way To Take A Break

Forget frequency and concentrate on these two factors instead.

The Better Way To Take A Break
[Photo: Flickr user Christopher Michel]

We talk a lot about the value of work-life balance, but we’re not very good at achieving it.


A study by PGi revealed that 87% of knowledge workers put in more than 40-hour workweeks, and the employer rating site Glassdoor found that the average U.S. employee only takes about half (51%) of their eligible paid time off. This, in spite of the fact that several studies have shown that psychological energy is a finite resource that needs to be replenished often and that we aren’t necessarily more productive when we put in longer hours.

But taking a two-week vacation or taking a long lunch once in a while won’t give you balance. It takes a daily effort to take breaks in between times of focused work in order to get closer to work-life balance and improve health and concentration.

Emily Hunter, associate professor of management at Baylor University, who told us recently that it is up to the employee to learn how best to toggle between the two, has conducted another small study that indicates there are ways to optimize those breaks to maximize productivity.

Hunter and Cindy Wu, a fellow associate professor of management at Baylor and coauthor of the study, wanted to see if there are better ways to enhance the recharging effects of a break. To explore this, the two researchers surveyed 95 employees (83% female) who primarily used the computer for their work. They ranged in age from 22-67 and about half had children living at home.

They each had to document their daily well-being and break activities for the next workweek. Throughout the day, participants had to complete a short survey after each break, which was defined as “any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email, or socializing with coworkers, not including bathroom breaks.” Respondents completed 959 total break surveys, which averaged to about two per day.

Some of the results weren’t surprising. When the employees stopped working on the task at hand and refocused on a preferred activity they experienced greater recovery. That didn’t always mean that they were choosing to do something mindless, just something that they preferred. In other words, they took a “better break.”


Based on this study, there was no evidence to prove that non-work-related activities were more beneficial. So if you choose to step away and check email on your phone in the hallway or on the sidewalk, you may actually feel better when you return to your desk.

Some studies support the idea that longer breaks are better (hello, two-hour lunch) but humans aren’t made like mobile devices. We don’t do as well when we deplete to zero and then go for a big replenishment. Other studies indicate that shorter, more frequent breaks can boost your productivity.

But Hunter and Wu found that the length of break wasn’t significantly related to resource recovery. Their analysis revealed that when employees take less frequent breaks, the positive relationship between break length and resource recovery becomes stronger. “In contrast, when employees take more frequent breaks, this positive relationship is not as pronounced,” they write. Therefore, we might try to forget how long we are taking a breather, and consider the relationship between break length how replenished we feel after taking it.

There were some surprises, namely that taking a midmorning break was better than sitting nose to the grindstone until lunch. The researchers found that the closer the break was taken to the time the worker actually woke up, the more it increased the benefits of alertness early in the day by providing more energy, motivation, and concentration. This squares with other studies that say you should take a coffee break midmorning rather than right when you get to the office. That’s one of the peak times when your body is producing cortisol, the hormone responsible for being alert.


Their findings also ran contrary to a 1995 study that revealed taking a break outside the office is better. Although “being away” is one of the primary conditions for a restorative context, they write, it wasn’t enough of a factor to make resource replenishment noticeably significant with this group.

Overall, the researchers did find that respondents reported fewer headaches, or eyestrain and lower back pain after the breaks. They also said they felt increased job satisfaction and decreased emotional exhaustion, “evidence that resource recovery over workday breaks can have a critical impact on employee health and work outcomes.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.