Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
You don’t need to zone out in front of YouTube and drink stale coffee.
If getting through the work day (let alone the whole week) feels like a painful slog, maybe your little respites need some tweaking. You might be failing to make the most of your work-day breaks.
A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that common beliefs—like the importance of getting away from your desk—didn’t actually translate into measurable outcomes when it came to making breaks more restorative.
Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu, associate professors of management at Baylor University, surveyed 95 employees whose jobs require lots of sitting in front of a computer screen. The researchers asked workers to fill out surveys throughout a five-day work week whenever they’d taken a break—defined as "any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected,” including time set aside for coffee, lunch, or socializing. (Bathroom trips didn’t count.)
The researchers then analyzed the self-reported data from 959 responses to see whether there was a correlation between type and duration of break and perceived job satisfaction and physical well-being. Here’s how to make the most of your breaks:
Time them right
It’s tempting to grab another cup of coffee to ward off the mid-afternoon slump. But the researchers found that taking breaks earlier in the day tended to correlate with more motivation, concentration, and energy. Turns out, the longer you wait to take a breather, the slump-ier you feel.
Do whatever you want
You know that nature can be soothing, but you don’t need to take a stroll through the park to recharge your desk-lackey batteries. The researchers found that breaks for “preferred activities”—whether that’s chatting with a co-worker or checking your email—were associated with fewer pesky somatic symptoms (such as lower back pain and eyestrain), decreased emotional exhaustion, and improved job satisfaction. No need to toggle between rigorous and mindless tasks—just opt for something you like doing.
Though some experts recommend a carefully choreographed routine of work sprints and breaks, Hunter and Wu didn’t find a specific sweet spot. Instead, they simply recommend taking a breather before you, say, start hyperventilating or conk out at your desk. Hunter explained to Baylor University:
"Unlike your cellphone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to zero percent before you charge it fully to 100 percent, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day.”