Office break

Baylor University researchers studied the most effective ways to take an office break, an action that was also part of the television series, "The Office."

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When I was in my early 20s, I worked for about one year in the office of an Ames, Iowa radio station.

The job was called "traffic," and it included scheduling advertisements during radio programs. The process in those days was to type out the title and time of an ad, and place it in a specific holder. The DJs would get a printout, and would know when to start running a commercial during the various programs.

It was a desk job, in a rather sedate office. I (still) have a habit of jumping up from my desk, and this drove my old boss crazy. I got in trouble for being antsy, and I never quite understood why it bothered that boss so much.

Now, 35 years later, I still move pretty fast when I'm taking a break from the computer, usually to the water cooler at one end of the room.

Those memories returned after I received a recent message about a study on when to most effectively take breaks during the work day. The study was done at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the researchers were Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu, in the Hankamer School of Business.

The study included 95 employees, ages 22-67 years old, during a five-day work week. 

Key findings include:

• The most beneficial time to take a workday break is mid-morning.

Hunter and Wu found that rather than the typical culture of working hard all morning only to take a lunch-hour or mid-afternoon break, a respite earlier in the workday replenishes more resources — energy, concentration and motivation.

"We found that when more hours had elapsed since the beginning of the work shift, fewer resources and more symptoms of poor health were reported after a break,” the study says. "Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective."

• "Better breaks" incorporate activities that employees prefer.

A common belief exists that doing things that are non-work-related are more beneficial, Hunter explained. Based on the study, there was no evidence to prove that non-work-related activities were more beneficial.

Simply put, preferred break activities are things you choose to do and things you like to do. These could also include work-related tasks.

"Finding something on your break that you prefer to do — something that’s not given to you or assigned to you — are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery and help you come back to work stronger," Hunter said.

• People who take "better breaks" experience better health and increased job satisfaction.

The employee surveys showed that recovery of resources — energy, concentration and motivation — following a "better break" (earlier in the day, doing things they preferred) led workers to experience less somatic symptoms, including headache, eyestrain and lower back pain after the break.

These employees also experienced increased job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior as well as a decrease in emotional exhaustion (burnout), the study shows.

• Longer breaks are good, but it's beneficial to take frequent short breaks. (Ha! I feel vindicated!)

While the study was unable to pinpoint an exact length of time for a better workday break (15 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.), the research found that more short breaks were associated with higher resources, suggesting that employees should be encouraged to take more frequent short breaks to facilitate recovery.

"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," Hunter said.

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