Are your stress levels getting on top of you at work? Here’s why taking ‘microbreaks’ could be the answer.
Whether you’re back in the office, working from home or doing a bit of both, remembering to take regular breaks can be a challenge. We’re not talking about lunch breaks (although they’re important too).
Instead, we’re talking about those moments where you take a step away from your screen to make a cup of tea or have a quick chat about last night’s TV.
You see, when we think about breaks in relation to work, we tend to only think about the big ones – lunch breaks, weekends and periods of annual leave. These definitely have a role to play in helping us to look after our mental health and overall wellbeing, but they’re not the only breaks we should be making time for.
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In fact, taking small, regular breaks throughout your working day – sometimes referred to as ‘microbreaks’ – could be the secret to increased productivity and reduced stress levels.
That’s according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, which suggests that taking microbreaks of 10 minutes or less is associated with reduced fatigue and increased vigour.
The research, which reviewed over 22 previous studies into microbreaks, found that the practice could play a key role in allowing employees to recover from stress and mental exertion during the work day, not just after it’s done.
What are ‘microbreaks’? And how do they work?
Microbreaks don’t have to be anything extravagant or difficult. Just two or three minutes focused on something other than work (such as making a cup of tea or chatting on the phone) can make all the difference; previous studies have shown that microbreaks can improve our ability to concentrate, help prevent injuries and reduce workplace stress. They’ve even been proven to increase the happiness we feel towards our jobs.
So, how do they work? According to psychotherapist and counselling directory member Beverley Blackman, regular breaks help us to look after our mental health at work because they allow our minds to regenerate and relax.
“We know that if we don’t fuel our bodies, they don’t work optimally, and we will end up feeling more tired and drained because we don’t have enough calories to keep us going,” Blackman explains.
“The mind doesn’t need ‘fuel’ in quite the same way – instead, the mind needs a break from concentration in order to regenerate and allow it to relax.”
By giving our mind a chance to regroup, microbreaks actually have the potential to boost our productivity in the long run, because they restore our ability to focus as we move through our working day. In turn, this boost in productivity can help us to manage stress and therefore reduce our risk of developing burnout – something Blackman describes as a “beneficial cycle”.
“We know that we feel refreshed and full of energy after a holiday or weekend break away from the ‘norm,’ and we know that if we sleep on a problem, the answer will likely be much clearer in the morning,” Blackman continues.
“This is because the mind thrives on taking time away from direct concentration while it processes the information you are working on, and once it has done this, you are better able to assimilate all that information and move forward.
“The mind doesn’t just work consciously – it works unconsciously as well, and if you give it some time away from fierce concentration, you will be able to come back to your work with more energy and clarity than before.”
The idea of letting our brains work “unconsciously” may be a strange one, but you’re probably more familiar with it than you think. For example, how many times has a brilliant idea come to you in the shower? When we allow our brains to wander and focus on things other than work, we give them an opportunity to process information and come up with new ideas.
Its why research has shown that “aha” moments come more often to people who take breaks – just like how sleep helps us to consolidate memories and process the events of our day in our dreams, so too does “waking rest” help our brains to sort through all the information it’s received and come to understand things more clearly.
“Taking a ‘power break’ helps your brain to process and retain chunks of information, and in doing so improves your ability to see the ‘wood’ from the ‘trees’,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan. “Taking a break also helps you to return to work feeling more refreshed so your productivity improves.”
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Dr Brewer continues: “The time you spend away from your desk doesn’t have to be long – traditional advice is to take a break of around 10 minutes every hour, but not necessarily all in one block. In fact, research suggests it’s better to take shorter, more frequent breaks (e.g. two-three minutes every 20 minutes) than taking longer breaks less often.
“Set a reminder on your watch or computer so you don’t forget.”
Even if you’re not ready to incorporate lots of microbreaks into your day, setting yourself reminders to step away from your desk is an important way to ensure you don’t overwork yourself.
“It helps to plan your breaks throughout the day, so that you can give your mind an opportunity to focus on something else,” Blackman says. “Grab your diary and give yourself a little time mid-morning, at lunchtime and mid-afternoon, so that you break up the day into sections.”
She continues: “Make the break nice for yourself so that you appreciate it – step away from your screen, check in with how your body feels and see if you are carrying any tension physically. Breaks need not be long, but the changes they bring about in you will become apparent very quickly.”
Although it may initially seem laborious to incorporate so many mini-breaks into your working day, it’s clear that giving yourself (and your brain) time to breathe can be incredibly beneficial for your mental and emotional wellbeing. So next time you’re feeling a little frazzled, step away from your desk for a second. It may not feel like a big deal, but it could make a big difference.
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