The power of restorative breaks
By Fiona Hitchiner
For years I thought the only way I was going to get through the mountain of work I had to complete was to work longer and longer hours. After years of pushing myself I was exhausted, and I had to take time off to recover.
During this time, I learnt something very interesting, working less and having more breaks is scientifically proven to improve focus, productivity and performance. Research has proven that our ability to stay focused is limited: prolonged performance of a task typically results in mental fatigue and decrements in performance over time. [i] Studies have also found that breaks or even brief diversions, can significantly increase our ability to focus on tasks for more prolonged periods.[ii]
Taking time out can seem counterproductive, particularly in workplaces that still focus on time spent working rather than outputs, however, breaks are more important than ever in a world that is constantly connected and where poor mental health is on the rise.
Restorative breaks can take up many different forms. In Daniel Pink’s bestselling book ‘When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’ he offers insights into how we can work at our optimum level by understanding our individual cycle of peak, trough and recovery and how including different types of restorative breaks (micro breaks, moving breaks, nature breaks, social breaks and mental-gear shifting breaks) helps us to be more productive and achieve our peak performance. Listen to Daniel Pink share the secrets of how good timing can help you become the most efficient, effective version of yourself on the Tony Robbins podcast show - https://www.tonyrobbins.com/podcasts/timing-is-everything/.
The key here is to understand what works for you and knowing what helps you get back into your flow and feel re-energised.
There are different types of restorative breaks
Below are examples of different types of restorative breaks that have proven to have a positive impact on wellbeing as well as productivity:
We know in sports that injuries occur when muscles are fatigued, the brain is just the same, although not technically a muscle it still requires breaks to achieve its optimum performance, even micro breaks are sufficient, they do not need to be lengthy, just moving away from your desk, filling up your water bottle, stretching, deep breathing or quick meditations can be enough.
Many of us are in sedentary roles and we are now told ‘sitting is the new smoking’, getting up and moving around has multiple benefits not just for our physical health but our mental health and productivity. Walking has been shown to relieve stress, reduce fatigue and boost our mood, simply taking a 5-minute walk or walking over to a colleague rather than calling or emailing has its benefits. If you can fit in more exercise that’s great but don’t give up if you think you only have 5 minutes – something is much better than nothing.
There are countless studies on the benefits of spending time in nature, from the physical benefits to the positive impact on our mood by reducing stress, restoring our mental energy and improving concentration. A study by Melbourne University has also found that even natural views improve attentiveness and fatigue, boosting concentration to top up energy reserves. [iii]
Social breaks are important to our wellbeing, they help us develop and build bonds at work, improve our morale as well as increase possibilities for collaboration. We no longer should frown on the water cooler or coffee machine chit chat but see it as an important part of our energy restoration and overall wellbeing. Some organisations are now strategically purchasing great coffee machines and planning where they put break areas to encourage more casual catch ups.
Going on holiday
Taking annual leave has many benefits, it can decrease stress levels, improve mood, enhance morale of an organisation and positively impact productivity. However, research by Expedia suggests we are not taking all our annual leave entitlement, [iv]in fact on average Australians are only taking 14 out of the 20 days per annum. While taking time away from work and the team might seem the last thing you can do when you are busy it may be the best thing for everyone.
Having a nap
For many of us the idea of having a nap during a workday implies laziness or it is something that is just for children or the elderly. However, research has shown that short naps of 10 – 20 minutes in length can significantly increase cognitive ability, restore alertness, enhance performance as well as reduce mistakes and accidents. Some leading organisations such as CommBank have added sleep pods into the design of their workplaces and are actively promoting the use of them.
Flexibility in the workplace is essential for maximising the benefits of restorative breaks
Although not technically a restorative break, flexible work allows individuals to develop a working pattern that best suits their own peak, trough and recovery cycles by giving them choices on when, where and how they work to achieve their best results. Informal flex also allows individuals the opportunity to take the restorative breaks they need when they need them.
So next time you are contemplating skipping lunch or staying back late to finish a project, just take notice of your energy levels, will you be more productive if you have a break and come back re-energised, re-focused and in the right zone?
ABOUT THE AGENDA AGENCY
Fiona Hitchiner is a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at The Agenda Agency - a boutique consulting firm specialising in creating diverse, inclusive and flexible workplaces. Fiona has over 20 years’ experience of working within Diversity & Inclusion, work-life integration, talent acquisition, employee engagement and HR. Fiona is passionate about creating environments where everyone can thrive and feel safe to be themselves and is focused on building authentic, successful and long-lasting relationships between organisations, individuals and communities.
[i] Sustaining attention for a prolonged period of time increases temporal variability in cortical responses, Leon C. Reteig, Ruud L. van den Brinka, Sam Prinssena, Michael X Cohen, Heleen A. Slagtera