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Should we be taking microbreaks to get us through the day?

Smiling businesswomanholding cup of coffee looking out of window
Being able to disengage with work, even for a short period of time, can help replenish the psychological and physical costs associated with working hard. (Getty)

We’ve all had days when we’ve barely left our desks. You sit down at your computer and before you know it, you’ve not moved for five hours — and you’ve worked straight through lunch.

In today’s working environment, breaks are often seen as a luxury we can’t afford. Our heavy workloads, constant flow of emails, Slack messages and more mean lots of us are working non-stop, from first thing in the morning to late at night.

We know we need to take breaks to stay refreshed, focused and healthy, but it can be difficult to take a decent amount of time away from our desks. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that taking “microbreaks” may be the answer.

Microbreaks are short interruptions in the working day that can have a positive effect on the way we feel and work.

The concept of the microbreak was invented in the 1980s by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio and Purdue University in Indiana. Their study, published in 1989, tested whether short breaks of around 27 seconds could reduce feelings of stress or boost productivity.

READ MORE: Microbreaks at work lead to faster thinking employees

After creating an artificial office environment, the researchers asked 20 study participants to work there for two days, carrying out a “highly repetitive” data entry task. The participants were assessed on their keystroke rate, correction rate, heart rate and mood, both before and after the break.

The study produced mixed results. The workers performed worse on some tasks after a microbreak — for example, by typing more slowly. However, those who took longer microbreaks had lower heart rates, suggesting they were calmer. Their work also needed fewer corrections too.

Why are microbreaks good for us?

Microbreaks are based on the theory that being able to disengage with work, even for a short period of time, can help replenish the psychological and physical costs associated with working hard.

By shifting our focus onto something unrelated to work, it helps us reduce demands that are causing fatigue and stress — and boost happiness, focus and satisfaction.

To find out more about their impact on job satisfaction, researcher Sooyeol Kim and his co-workers at the University of Illinois studied a group of South Korean call centre workers over a two-week period. The participants were asked to fill in a survey before and after each day, as well as provide their daily sales records.

Those who didn’t feel engaged with their jobs but took microbreaks appeared to be more productive and had more positive feelings. However, this was only the case for breaks which involved activities like relaxing, talking to colleagues or browsing the internet.

Taking microbreaks may also help reduce stress levels, particularly in mentally or emotionally taxing jobs. A study published in 2010 by researchers at Hannover Medical School found that work breaks significantly reduced the stress levels of surgeons carrying out complex laparoscopic surgeries, without prolonging the time it took to complete an operation.

READ MORE: How to practice self-care when you're self-employed

Helpfully, what you do on a microbreak is entirely up to you. As long as it’s not work-related, a microbreak can involve browsing your phone, chatting to friends, a short walk or even just gazing out of the window. In fact, one study found that looking at a city scene with a flowering meadow green roof helped employees concentrate.

The physical impact of microbreaks

Whether you work in an office or from home, if you have a traditional “desk” job, chances are you spend a considerable amount of time sitting down. Not only is it giving us aches and pains, a 2017 US study suggested that sitting for prolonged periods of time is a risk factor for early death — even if you exercise.

“Although you’d think there would be more distractions at home, many of us are finding that we are sitting for longer periods, and often at poorly set up workstations,” says Jo Blood, MD of Posture People. “If you sit for long periods of time your muscles get stiff, which leads to more pain when you do eventually move. Combine that with sitting too low or on the sofa and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

READ MORE: Five ways to reduce screen time when working from home

Microbreaking — and a little movement every so often — may be a partial antidote to this problem. Researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of New Brunswick determined that these short interludes can have a “positive effect on reducing discomfort” in the back, neck and wrists of computer workers. What’s more, the microbreaks showed no evidence of a detrimental effect on worker productivity.

“Moving regularly is one way to combat a poor set up,” Blood says. “We recommend putting a timer on the other side of the room, so that when it goes off, you’re forced to get up to turn it off. Movement helps to keep you more productive for longer.”

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