There’s increasing evidence that working flat out for hours at a time is actually counter-productive, and that we are more efficient, effective and creative if we give ourselves a physical break during our working day.

Statutory breaks

There are, of course, employment regulations about how long we can work without a break. In September 2019, major changes were made to the Canada Labour Code regarding breaks and rest periods for federally regulated workplaces, including:

  • 30 minute breaks every 5 hours for employees
  • Medical breaks: Employees may take any unpaid breaks necessary for medical reasons (i.e., to take medication, or short rest or exercise periods).
  • Eight-hour rest periods: Employees must be granted a rest period of at least eight consecutive hours between work periods or shifts. 

However, what about a brain break?

Research has long indicated that a break during your working day can make you more efficient, effective and productive. There appear to be three main benefits from a break during working hours.

1. Breaks beat boredom

When you are focussed on a task you may feel that ideas are flowing – and then suddenly they’re not. This is because the human brain evolved to take in in multiple sources of information for survival, not to concentrate on just one task for an extended period. There comes a point where the focus is dropped. According to University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, the solution is to interrupt yourself for even a very short time:

“Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. … When faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”

2. Breaks help information retention and connections

Many of us will have experienced a tricky problem that we cannot solve, and said “I’ll sleep on it”. This is actually taking advantage of the subconscious part of our brain being allowed to sort and sift information to make sense of it. The same effect can happen during daydreaming, a time when the mind is allowed to wander during undemanding tasks or just doing nothing. That may account as to why so many “eureka!” moments happen in the shower (or the bath, more accurately). Access to this so-called ‘diffuse mode’ can be induced during working hours by a simple shift from a complicated task to a simple one, such as making a coffee. When you return to your original task, you may find a new solution or approach has formed in your mind.

3. Breaks reactivate goals

A short break enables to return to a task more focussed on the desired outcome than the details. This improves your performance as you re-evaluate the task and move forward to your goal with more clarity and energy

How long should a break be?

This really is the thorny question! An article in the Harvard Business Review by psychologist Ron Friedman, Ph.D., suggests a 15 minute scheduled break, i.e. one that is in your daily diary. Your break should also be active, whether taking a walk, doing some stretches, or having a snack. It could also be time to run a brief errand. As Dr Friedman says:

“The critical thing is to step away from your computer so that your focus is relaxed and your mind drifts." (So no, checking Facebook does not count.)

Breaks for your body

As the above example shows, breaks are as much for your physical wellbeing as for your mental focus. Tech company The Muse used their time-tracking and productivity app to study the habits of highly productive employees. Their findings support the argument for breaks of more than just a couple of minutes:

“What the most productive 10% of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks. Specifically, the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it.”

There are plenty of studies showing the detrimental effects on health of sitting for eight hours at a stretch. Even though the regulations we discussed at the top of this article says a worker is entitled to a 30 mins break in every 5 hours continually worked, many of us will take our lunch break sitting down and then drive or take the train home, again sitting down.

The importance of movement

Moving around the during the day will keep us more active and healthier, as the annual On You Feet Day campaign highlights. They suggest simple changes to help people to sit less and move more at work:

  • Stand during phone calls
  • Stand and take a break from your computer every 30 minutes
  • Use the stairs rather than the elevator
  • Have standing or walking meetings
  • Eat your lunch away from your desk
  • Walk to your colleague's desk instead of phoning or emailing them
  • Stand at the back of the room during presentations

The Pomodoro Technique

This technique takes a slightly different approach. Your workday is divided into 25 minute segments, with a five minute break in between. Each 30 minute section is known as a pomodoro. When you have completed four pomodoros, you then take a longer break of 15-20 minutes. The concept behind this is that having ‘just’ 25 minutes gives you a sense of urgency and you don’t get distracted. Journalist Kat Boogaard wrote an honest appraisal of how this worked (and not) for her.

Social breaks

if you’re not sure what to do in your breaks, get social, and we mean, real world social, not online! According to a Forbes article:

“A team of MIT researchers led by Professor Alexander “Sandy” Pentland discovered that call center workers who took the time to converse with their co-workers, instead of just grinding away, got through calls faster, felt less tension and earned the same approval ratings as their peers who didn't schmooze at the office.”

Time to stop

So, if your boss (or your employees) asks why you’re jogging around your desk, chatting to a colleague or just daydreaming looking out of your office window, you can tell them you’re improving your productivity, creativity and wellbeing!