What do these three things have in common: the Doobie Brothers classic rock song “Long Train Running,” Paul Harvey’s memorable radio stories and good stand-up comedy? They all masterfully incorporate the pregnant pause — a moment of suspenseful silence before delivering something great. One could argue that without the intentional pause, what follows wouldn’t seem nearly as significant.
We also need to embrace the power of the pause in the workplace. Breaks are good not only for employee well-being, but also the businesses for which they work.
Research repeatedly demonstrates when people take breaks, they’re far more productive than when they don’t. A recent study conducted by DeskTime, which makes employee productivity tracking software, found the most productive people average cycles of 52 minutes of work followed by 17-minute breaks. A study published in the journal Cognition showed our ability to focus on a single cognitive task is limited — but if peppered with short breaks every 20 minutes, we can accomplish longer tasks more efficiently and effectively. Yet another study published in the journal Neuropsychologia found that daydreamy or “diffuse” states of mind induced by such activities as walking or strumming a guitar lead to significantly more creativity and ah-ha moments than focused states alone. If the results of these studies aren’t convincing enough, numerous others from the National Institute for Public Safety Health suggest people who take regular breaks and avoid excessive overtime are less likely to injure themselves.
Unfortunately, our work cultures and individual attitudes often perpetuate the idea that avoiding breaks, eating lunch at your desk and not taking vacation demonstrate higher levels of dedication and productivity. And people are falling for it at alarming rates. A Right Management poll found only 19 percent of U.S. employees surveyed take a real lunch break away from work, while
39 percent reported they eat lunch at their desks and 28 percent admitted they rarely take breaks at all. Add to this another Right Management survey that found 70 percent of U.S. workers don’t use their vacation days and you have a recipe for dwindling productivity and employee burnout.
So how do we bridge the gap between what’s ideal for employee well-being and productivity and what’s actually happening? The first step is to reframe the notion of
break-taking so people view it not as a sign of laziness, but an essential part of the job. Rather than focusing on how much time people sit at their desks or appear to be working, track how much they actually produce. Next, assess the working conditions of employees who believe they have no time to take breaks to identify if their workload truly exceeds their capacity, they struggle to prioritize their tasks or simply feel pressure to always appear busy.
The reasons for not taking breaks can be addressed at the individual and system levels by asking a few questions. Are the right people in the right positions? Are tasks performed well or just performed? Do we need to hire more people? Are communications unclear and cause confusion about what’s important? Do we hold unconscious biases toward those who take breaks or chat in the hallway that are communicated in subtle or not-so-subtle ways? Do we reward or praise people who work incessantly? Do we have policies about breaks and actively encourage people to take them?
As we assess our break-taking cultures, policies and practices, areas requiring change should start from the top with leaders modeling breaks and talking about the benefits. We can also consider these ideas:
Institute policies promoting breaks beyond what’s required by law.
Offer paid time to employees to perform volunteer work or serve on boards outside their industries.
Conduct a healthy break selfie photo contest to reinforce positive attitudes toward break-taking.
Publicly praise people who take vacations and truly unplug.
Reward quality work over time spent on work.
With a few intentional changes that start from the top, we’ll begin to find evidence of increasing employee well-being, dedication and productivity in such places as
well-worn walking paths, successful coffee shops and bustling break rooms.
As is the case with good music, story telling and comedy, it’s often the pauses that set up what comes next in our organizations — something really great.