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Make Time for Break Time

Research from the University of Toronto underscores the business benefits of encouraging employees to take regular breaks, and giving them more free rein in deciding how to use them.

Thursday, October 10, 2013
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In today's faster-paced, higher-demand business environment, many employees are eating lunch at their desks and not walking away from the work in front of them to recharge their batteries.

The detrimental impact this can have on stress-related absenteeism, reduced productivity and increased medical costs "are in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year," according to new research from the University of Toronto that underscores the bottom-line importance of taking breaks.

The study by University of Toronto management professor John Trougakos and his team -- Lunch Breaks Unpacked: Examining the Effect of Daily Lunch-Break Activities and Control over Break Activities on Fatigue -- shows the importance of encouraging breaks away from offices and desks. The research also shows breaks' positive effect on employees' energy levels -- and, in turn, productivity -- when they're in control of their time spent.

Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch had the opportunity to speak recently with both Trougakos and Lisa Hamblet, vice president of Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Facility Solutions, who have teamed up to get the word out about the importance of encouraging autonomous lunch breaks and providing the right environments -- including the right supplies and services -- to do so.

http://www.hreonline.com/images/dv1238015QABreaksL.jpgHRE: Can you describe what led to this research and what the key findings were?

Trougakos: I've done studies before this one on workday breaks and employees' performance and chose this time to focus specifically on the lunch break. So we put together a study of 78 university employees, asking them what they did over their lunches over a period of 10 days. We then polled people who worked closely with them about their observations of those employees' fatigue and energy levels at the end of each of these days.

What we found was that those who did relaxing things during the lunch break were more energized. Not surprisingly, people who worked through lunch were more fatigued. But people who socialized, as opposed to enjoying sheer relaxation, were also fatigued.

What we found interesting was that, although these specific energy-relevant activities directly impacted work fatigue, each of these effects was offset by the degree of freedom employees had over how to use their break time. Autonomy was the key finding here; the takeaway is that people who have more freedom to do what they prefer to do during their breaks experience enhanced positive effects and decreased negative effects on fatigue and energy.

HRE: Are there really that many employers out there prohibiting breaks or dictating how employees spend their time during them?

Trougakos: It's not so much in their written policies -- after all, there are laws governing lunch breaks that all employees should get, and employers must abide by them. But I'm seeing growing evidence that more companies are discouraging employees from taking breaks, not so much in what's allowed, but in the company culture that discourages them.

There are even companies that take their workers off the clock as soon as they leave their work stations, even for bathroom or coffee breaks. Independent polls suggest employees are feeling pressured to work through their breaks and lunch breaks. There are polls I've seen saying more than 50 percent of employees skip their lunch breaks.

Hamblet: We, too, have seen surveys indicating people are not taking their breaks and employers are not encouraging them to. We conducted our Staples Advantage Survey in 2011 and again in 2013, and found 57 percent and 73 percent of employees, respectively, were looking for more amenities and said a well-stocked kitchen would make them happier at work. Making lunch and break rooms welcoming and stocking them with better selections in healthy foods and drinks really gives employees the opportunities to get up from their desk and get re-focused, or un-focused on the work at hand. It allows them to do this; gives them permission.

We found encouraging break-room freedom also allows for collaboration; those breaks are actually productive.

One thing we also noted in our surveys was that some employees deprived of adequate break environments and opportunities were actually leaving the building at 20-to-40 minutes at a time just to grab a snack or cup of coffee; that can add up. In fact, we added up these types of breaks for all our client companies, extrapolating over a year, and they equated to 10.6 billion hours of unproductive time resulting from 85 million people leaving to get coffee.

HRE: So what would be some employer best practices for attacking this problem?

Trougakos: Really setting up a culture that encourages them to take breaks would be at the top of the list. And doing what Lisa recommends, stocking break areas with much more to choose from, sends a message that, "Hey, we're investing resources in your breaks. It's OK to recharge yourself."

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Changing a culture is not easy. From my perspective, strategizing is the perfect way to look at this. I liken it to sports. The best coaches out there know when to rest their best players, so they can perform their best when they are needed. The same applies to employees. They need to be using the best times during a workday to take their best breaks.

HRE: Does that involve training?

Trougakos: Yes, you can teach them this through training. It doesn't have to be formal training; it can be informal conversation, something managers can convey. You look at the tasks ahead of you, when you have a phone call, when you have a meeting and when you can plan a break. Sometimes, employees get so strung out trying to perform with no breaks, they end up taking a dysfunctional break at the wrong time when they should be at their best.

Maybe small seminars can be held from time to time on this. I've given talks to companies about how to manage work productivity. I stress that we can't just ignore the fact that we're human beings. I use a muscle-energy example: You know when a muscle needs to rest; you know when a muscle simply can't take any more. You should know when you, as an employee, can't take anymore without moving around a little. And employers need to respect this more.

HRE: Your study finds people who socialize over lunch also experience fatigue, even though it's a legitimate break from work. Does this suggest total relaxation during breaks would do more for overall energy level?

Trougakos: There's no disputing the benefit of quiet relaxation. I am aware there are organizations that are providing better relaxing break stations, even nap rooms. And even if [it's] just for five minutes, yes, I do see the merit of power naps.

But what was telling in the study was when workers were in control of their choices, when there was autonomy and no pressure from the company to do something else, their energy levels after socializing were raised. Even those who chose to work on something through their lunch break, without being controlled in any way, experienced less fatigue -- more on par with those who had taken breaks.

Hamblet: We're also finding the on-site break environments are making a difference in overall employee health and happiness. We've really focused our services on cleaning these areas up. There was great concern that employees were coming to the workforce sick and we needed to make sure that common areas were clean. It really was a matter of educating employers about the importance of cleaning their common areas and encouraging employees to spend more time there. It really was an education.

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