Taking breaks helps worker productivity

By Val Leveson

Some people think the more hours they put into their work, the more productive they are - this is not necessarily the case.

Everyone needs to get off the treadmill from time to time - if they don't they may be risking their health, focus and even their jobs.

As Dr Dianne Gardner, senior lecturer, School of Psychology, Massey University says, "If you're exhausted it's more likely that you'll lose focus and press the 'send all' button after writing a confidential email. It's the time when you're more open to making careless mistakes."

Auckland's Dr Stress, John McEwan, agrees. He says: "Look at it this way, Moses was right! We should have six days' labour and one day off - this day should be technology-free."

McEwan suggests seeing your year in a 12-week time frame. After each 12-week period, you should take at least a long weekend, if not a week off.

"It's about natural cycles - in this way you can set your body clock for the next season."

He also suggests taking at least two to three weeks off every year. He says the harder you work, the more relaxing your holiday should be.

"You shouldn't be getting on a plane for 14 hours and then running to and fro.

It's okay for your break to be active though - but in terms of playing tennis, going for walks, and especially switching off the mobile and internet."

McEwan says it's also vital to take breaks during your working day.

"It's about working smarter, not harder - about going forward, not spinning your wheels from exhaustion. People under stress can make fatal errors, in hospitals people die, in organisations money and market share are lost. Something obvious can be overlooked if your brain is not engaged."

Firstly, McEwan says, don't miss a meal. "Breakfast is very important - but only keeps you going for about five hours. You need to take a break for lunch or you'll hit a wall later.

"It's also important to get up and take a walk. You should be going to the toilet, doing relaxation exercises with your head and shoulders - particularly if you are stressed."

McEwan has some suggested exercises and information about stress on his website www.drstress.co.nz/

"If you do hit a wall your mind stops. If you're doing 16 hour days, you may find you have to redo most of the last eight hours because of loss of focus."

Dr Gardner says what's been called presenteeism can be a consequence of not taking breaks.

"Taking breaks means one can revive and refresh - breaks and microbreaks are ways of getting focus back." She says presenteeism is being physically present, but mentally absent from work. "Work is demanding more and more from us, and often there is less giving from workplaces - technology means there's an expectation that you'll be available at all times."

Some organisations have expressed concerns about "Cyberloafing", this is employees taking time off work to go on the internet. Many employers are so aware of this possibility that internet usage is often restricted.

Gardner says Dr Andrea Polzer-Debruyne's research with Massey University focuses on cyberloafing.

Gardner says, think of it this way: most of us work five days a week. When do we have time to go to the bank? If we do it online it can take much less time than having to leave the office and wait in line. Technically this is cyberloafing, but we're actually saving time.

A big part of this, Gardner says, is whether you think the organisation is treating you fairly. "Often staff members feel that to make things fair, they are entitled to take a bit in return - particularly if they've been working exceptionally long hours. It's about balancing the ledger - a perception of fairness."

Another thing that influences whether people take breaks or not is what their colleagues are doing. "Do people cyberloaf or take a lot of breaks around you? What's the social norm? If people around you don't take breaks, it's likely that you won't either."

So, why would people take breaks? "When you have a certain workload, it's good to pace yourself. Otherwise it can get unremitting. You need to take time for self care. Know your rhythms. Take breaks and take meal breaks, you can't keep running on a treadmill all the time - that leads to exhaustion, and the inability to work effectively."

The number of breaks taken can depend on the office culture, says Gardner. "There are some very tough office cultures out there - and there are people who thrive on it. If that's the case, it's not a problem.

"What employers need to be aware of is when there's a lot of sick leave being taken and high turnover of staff, that can indicate that there's a problem."

She says if the workload has become punishing, it needs to be fixed. "If a person is actually doing a good job but taking a bit of time on the internet or taking breaks, they should be allowed to do that.

"It's about respecting your employees enough not to hound them. It's been shown in research internationally that if you start tightening rules and surveillance, this can create resentment and employees may hit back by being less productive."

She says new rules need to be brought about through consultation. "This should help build relationships."

She says if an employee is really slacking off, they need to be spoken to.

Gardner says boredom too can be a reason for taking a lot of breaks. "If this is happening, the job needs to be designed with more balance - this can be achieved through consultation."

The main thing for people to realise, Gardner says, is work intensification does not necessarily mean more productivity.

"At this point, with the recession and all the staff cuts that have gone with it - there is no extra capacity in workplaces. We're getting to a situation where the workforce is characterised by half the workforce being exhausted, and the other half unemployed. It's not a very healthy picture."

- NZ Herald

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