Can Work Breaks Increase Employee Productivity?

Companies often explore new ways to increase employee productivity and job satisfaction. They don’t generally consider work breaks a good way to make that happen. But breaks from work, such as evenings, weekends, and vacations, can help reduce burnout, increase job performance, and lower blood pressure. On the other hand, work fatigue can lead to serious deficits in productivity and is linked to serious health issues and burnout. New research by Hunter & Wu (2015) explores the impact of work breaks on recovering from resource depletion, which is when resources such as energy or attention get used up.

ARE ALL WORK BREAKS EQUAL?

The researchers looked at characteristics of work breaks and their impact on resource recovery. For example, they considered the extent to which break activities were effortful, whether breaks consisted of work or non-work related tasks, as well as the influence of break length. They found that resources are often replenished by temporarily removing work demands during workday breaks, and that two key break characteristics can help recovery. First, activities that are more preferred to the employee (things the employee enjoys doing) are associated with better resource recovery than less preferred activities. This is because more energy is spent justifying or modifying activity choices when less preferred activities are involved.

The second break characteristic associated with better resource recovery is that breaks taken early in the shift are associated with a greater replenishment of resources than breaks taken later in the shift. This is because as work shifts wear on with no opportunity for resource recovery, individuals experience greater strain in meeting work demands, and recovery doesn’t return as easily to earlier levels.

The preliminary evidence also suggests that break length and number of breaks per day are together important for recovering resources. In addition, a main finding of the research suggests that the recovery of resources led workers to experience fewer somatic symptoms (e.g., headache, eyestrain, lower back pain) after the break was over. Resource recovery also led to increased job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior (going beyond the call of duty), and decreased emotional exhaustion.

IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS

This research provides compelling evidence that resource recovery via workday breaks can have a critical impact on employee health and work outcomes. Although the research was conducted among administrative employees, the findings may have wider applications for many other workers.

Organizations can help maximize the benefits of breaks by encouraging and facilitating engagement in preferred activities during breaks, as well as by paying attention to the timing of breaks. When more hours pass from the beginning of a shift to when a break is taken, resource recovery may be compromised, and symptoms of poor health can occur. Organizations should ensure that employees don’t wait to take breaks until later in the day. If scheduling concerns make this unavoidable, it may be even more important for employees to make the most of their afternoon breaks through preferred activities.

These findings also suggest that many short breaks are associated with better recovery than fewer longer breaks, so organizations should also make this arrangement possible. Employees taking advantage of these opportunities may experience better resource recovery. For organizations, being mindful of the way that work breaks help employees can lead to a positive impact on employee health and other vital work outcomes.