We’ve all felt it, but what is it really?

That feeling of being “brain dead” or a lack of productivity is nothing an employer wants, but something that managers don’t always understand either. Research done in the past two decades, however, goes far in convincing managers that significant, frequent breaks result in peak productivity. This article covers the recent research about optimal break intervals, duration and forms that achieve optimal productivity.

Optimal Break Periods and How They Help

The research seems to agree: breaks as often as every hour keep employees fresh.

Recently, social networking company the Draugiem Group examined what habits set their most productive employees apart by tracking habits through the app, DeskTime. To their surprise, they found that the top 10% of employees with the highest productivity DID NOT put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. Instead these top performers actually took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work. This real-time study supports what workers have known all along: they need to stop and feel human for a moment before carrying on with work.

An interesting study carried out by researchers at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mirrored these results. It began with the hypothesis that attention isn’t a finite resource and it diminishes over the course of the day. Instead, it can be restored to peak levels with the right break strategy. Researchers gave participants visual, mental tasks (akin to working on a computer) that required intense attention. While one group had to “power through” several hours of the task, another took breaks every 40 minutes to focus on something other than a computer screen that didn’t require intense attention. The conclusion was:

  • “Deactivation/reactivation of the vigilance goal plays a much more critical role in averting vigilance decrements.” In plain English, vigilance or careful attention returned to high levels once the break was complete. Researchers concluded that careful attention and highly productive work can continue throughout the day with no “vigilance decrements” if workers take frequent breaks of at least 10 minutes. Imagine getting to the end of the day without “brain death”!  Researchers concluded, “Happily, it is surprisingly easy to prevent loss of control” or focus.

The Ideal Interval Depends on the Individual. Break intervals vary by individual. The following formulas fit different work situations and personality types.

  • Pomodori Technique: developed in the late 1980s, this method uses a timer to limit work intervals to 25 minutes followed by a short break of 5 minutes.
  • Ultradian Rhythm:  researchers William Dement and Nathan Kleitman believe that human attention cycles from higher to lower levels throughout the day in a way similar to how our sleep patterns change throughout the night. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder took this insight a step further by positing that many employees work best in 90-minute intervals.
  • The Draugeim Group recommends a 57/17 Split
  • The standard, two 15-minute breaks at 10 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.:  While the recent research covered in the studies above indicate that more frequent breaks are ideal, getting many employees to take a break mid-morning, mid-afternoon and lunch, too, can be a challenge. Clearly, science supports that these three are the bare minimum our brains need to reboot.

Managers and employees can work together to determine which of these schedules work best. The more self-determination for setting schedules employees get, the more they buy into the program.

What Kind of Break Should You Take?

Ten minutes of deep breathing while looking out the window? 15 minutes of “Saturday Night Live”? Five minutes of strenuous jumping jacks?

Again, individual preference rules the form a work break takes. First and foremost, the cessation of the intense “vigilance” involved in work tasks is critical. Beyond that, some employees can stay at their desks; other must retreat to a break room or a quick walk outside.

Some ideas for useful break activities include:

  • Daydreaming or meditation at the desk.  Too long maligned as goofing off, daydreaming actually accomplishes a lot of important cognition. Many studies show that relaxed daydreaming allows the brain to go deeper to solve tough issues without our conscious awareness. While working, the “executive function” portion of our brains is on fire. But giving our brain a chance to wallow in “defocused attention” of daydreaming or meditation also has its benefits. This process also releases dopamine, making us more creative.
  • Take a walk. Make sure to notice any natural elements to remove your thoughts from work or other stressors.
  • Take a nap.  Many workspaces now have couches and even beds to get a 20 to 30 minute nap. People that get into this habit find they can wake themselves easily after a short period. Those that can’t use the alarms on their cell phones.
  • Exercise.  Exercise physiologist Chris Jordan explains, “very good evidence” exists that high-intensity interval training provides, “many of the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training but in much less time.”
  • Look at photos of baby animals.  No wonder they’re so popular on social media . . . they are proven productivity enhancers! In a study conducted by Hiroshima University and reported in The Washington Post, researchers had university students look at pictures of baby animals before completing various tasks. Those who saw the baby animal pictures did more productive work after seeing those photographs – even more than those who saw a picture of an adult animal or a pleasant food. Scientists determined that looking at adorable fur-babies made viewers more attentive. This practice also reduced stress and removed viewers from the minute details, thereby providing important, more global perspective.

How Can Managers Encourage Employees to Take Breaks?

Showing employees that taking breaks is important can be a large step toward showing employees that they, and their mental and physical health, is valued.

Simply covering how the company expects employees to take breaks comes as a great relief to many. Showing your employees that their health is important increases morale and productivity, and helps employees to feel valued. Managers can also increase morale through company wide breaks, group health, dental and vision insurance, and occasional team building events. Employees spend many hours of their days at work, their time should be useful.

Bill King is the president of William J. King & Associates