It’s a rare boss who expects workers to spend hours constantly on task without taking the occasional 10- or 15-minute break to rest and recharge. But tell that to employees who, because of workplace culture or their own insecurities, think their careers will suffer if they’re not knocking themselves out every minute of the day. Tell that to a supervisor who is constantly under pressure to get more work out of a dwindling workforce.
The pace of many workplaces has a way of discouraging people from breaking away from work even if a break is likely to enhance productivity. A report in the February McKinsey Quarterly, a publication of management consultancy McKinsey & Company, encourages a change in attitude.
Among other things, the article says leaders who encourage workers to take breaks not only have science on their side, they also can encourage a healthy work style by setting an example and taking breaks themselves.
Lead by leaving
The article tells of an executive who made the decision to encourage his employees to take breaks when he started a technology consultancy in 2011. In making that decision, he looked to the science of how the brain works and why interruptions and distractions hurt productivity.
He then set an example by taking time offline to let employees know that they should feel comfortable doing the same, instead of feeling like they always need to be accessible to the boss via email, instant messaging, or in person. And he went further: Between his own focused work sessions, he said he would sometimes “bugger off for a walk.”
The example he set resulted in a new attitude among employees. His example communicated to his workforce “that breaks are a legitimate use of time because we get so much more done afterward,” the article quotes the executive as saying. He went on to say his workforce “adopted the phrase ‘leaving by example,’ encouraging people to use it instead of a mumbled, guilty excuse for taking a break.”
Working with purpose
The McKinsey report follows a 2014 study from DeskTime, a maker of time-tracking and productivity software. The study claims those in the top 10 percent of the productivity scale work for 52 minutes and then take a break for 17 minutes. Why do those people end up being so productive? They’re extremely focused on what they’re doing while they work, according to DeskTime. They work with purpose.
“Working with purpose can also be called the 100 percent dedication theory,” the DeskTime article states. “The notion that whatever you do, you do it full-out. Therefore, during the 52 minutes of work, you’re dedicated to accomplishing tasks, getting things done, making progress.”
Too guilty for a break
So if breaks are so beneficial to productivity, why don’t more workers use them effectively? Office supply retailer Staples released a survey of office workers and managers in May 2014 showing that one in five employee respondents cited guilt as the reason they don’t take time away from their work stations.
The Staples survey found that 55 percent of the employees surveyed didn’t feel they could leave their desks to take a break. Even though most said they didn’t feel encouraged to take breaks, they thought breaks would help their performance. The survey reported that 59 percent said regular breaks would improve their work, 43 percent said breaks would improve their personal happiness, and 37 percent said breaks would improve their health.
In its report of the survey’s findings, Staples urged employers to stock break rooms with healthy snacks and beverages and comfortable furniture to encourage employees to take relaxing breaks. Of course, Staples sells break-room supplies and furniture, but the retailer also passed along other suggestions, including urging employees to disconnect from work-related technology when taking a break.
Staples also recommended urging employees to do something during breaks to generate positive feelings, “since these emotions are energizing, improve creativity, and can increase productivity.”