Microbreaks: why you need them

Experts call a microbreak any short-lived process that breaks the monotony of physical or mental work. A break can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and can be anything from making tea to stretching or watching a video.

There is no consensus on how long an ideal micro-break should last and how often they should be taken, so experimentation should be done. In fact, if you regularly lean back in your chair to talk on the phone or look at your smartphone, you may already be using the microbreak technique. According to University of Illinois graduate student Suyul ​​Kim and other microbreak experts, there are only two rules: breaks should be short and voluntary. “But in practice, our only official break is usually lunch, although some companies provide an additional break, usually 10-15 minutes,” says Kim.

Calming distraction effect

Microbreaks began to be studied in the late 1980s by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio and Purdue University in Indiana. They wanted to find out if short breaks could increase productivity or reduce worker stress. To do this, they created an artificial office environment and invited 20 participants to “work” there for two days, doing the monotonous data entry work. 

Each worker was allowed to take one micro-break every 40 minutes. During the break, which usually lasted only 27 seconds, the participants stopped working but remained at their workplace. The scientists tracked the heart rate and performance of their “employees” and found that the pauses weren’t actually as helpful as they had hoped. Employees even performed worse on some tasks after a microbreak, such as typing less text per minute. But workers who took longer breaks were also found to have lower heart rates and fewer mistakes. 

There is now mountain of evidence that short breaks reduce stress and make the overall work experience more enjoyable. After decades of additional research, microbreaks have proven effective, and the first study’s disappointing results are due to the fact that the breaks were too short.

Stretching – it is important

It is believed that micro-breaks help to cope with long sedentary work, relieving the physical tension of the body.

“We recommend micro breaks to all our clients. It is important to take regular breaks. It’s better to do what you enjoy during breaks, but of course it’s better to rest your body, not your brain, and instead of watching videos on social networks, it’s better to get physical activity, for example, leave the table,” says Katherine Metters, physical therapist and health and safety expert at Ergonomics Consultancy Posturite.

The latest data from the UK Department of Health shows the scale of the problem, which short breaks help solve. In 2018, there were 469,000 workers in the UK with injuries and musculoskeletal problems at work.

One area where microbreaks are beneficial is in surgery. In a field that requires extreme precision, where errors regularly cost patients their lives, it is important for surgeons not to overwork. In 2013, two researchers from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec studied 16 surgeons to see how 20-second breaks every 20 minutes would affect their physical and mental fatigue.

During the experiment, surgeons performed complex operations, and then their condition was assessed in the next room. There, they were asked to trace the outline of a star with surgical scissors to see how long and how accurately they could hold a heavy weight on their outstretched arm. Each surgeon is tested three times: once before surgery, once after surgery where they were allowed micro-breaks, and once after non-stop surgery. During breaks, they briefly left the operating room and did some stretching.

It was found that surgeons were seven times more accurate in the test after operations, where they were allowed to take short breaks. They also felt less tired and experienced less back, neck, shoulder and wrist pain.

Micro-break technique

According to sociologist Andrew Bennett, microbreaks make workers more alert and alert and less tired. So what’s the right way to take breaks? Here are some tips from the experts.

“A good way to force yourself to take a break is to put a large bottle of water on the table and drink regularly. Sooner or later you will have to go to the toilet – this is a good way to stretch and stay hydrated, ”says Osman.

Bennett’s main advice is not to prolong the breaks. Metters recommends doing some stretching at your desk, stepping up and seeing what’s going on outside, which will relax your eyes and mind. If you’re worried that you’ll have a hard time spreading your breaks evenly, set a timer.

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