Properly Resourced: Your Brain on Breaks

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

It’s stating the obvious, but I’ll do it anyway: Stress is taxing. It costs us. What’s more, our instinct for managing stress may be exactly opposite of what would be an effective approach. For instance, when we are feeling the weight of a mountain of work pressing down, the last thing many of us feel we can do is get up and take a break -- even the scrappiest of breaks like going to the bathroom. Logic says we don’t have time; emotion says all we want to do is get everything done so we can get out from under the mountain.

It’s a mistake. Just take a look at the beta wave illustration below from a Microsoft study in which participants were outfitted with EEG caps and divided into two groups: group #1 had 4 back-to-back meetings with no breaks; group #2 had the same meetings with 10-minute breaks in between. An increase in beta waves is associated with stress which is depicted with hot colors while the beta waves associated with lowered stress are captured in blues and greens.


Illustration by Brown Bird Design
That’s one hot brain! A brain with no breaks is a stressed brain; accumulating stress is associated with lower levels of wellbeing and poorer performance. It's that simple.
Faulty logic also suggests that working longer equals increased productivity. We fall trap to this all the time. But a Harvard Business Review (HBR) analysis of existing research on workplace breaks found that taking breaks throughout the day resulted not just in better wellbeing but also better performance. When we are properly resourced, we feel and perform better. In a nation-wide climate in which 59% of employees report feeling burned-out, according to a study by Aflac, finding a way to feel better is reaching a non-negotiable point. The Harvard Business Review article captures that destructive dynamic:
“Pushing through work when very little energy is left in the tank puts a strain on well-being and work performance. In extreme cases, nonstop work can lead to a negative spiral: A worker tries to finish tasks despite their depleted state, is unable to do them well and even makes mistakes, resulting in more work and even fewer resources left to tackle those same tasks. This means that the more we work, the less productive and more exhausted we can become. Think about reading the same line for the fifth time, for example, and still not absorbing it.”

But not all breaks are equal

As important as they are, the kind of break taken makes a difference:
  • A walk taken around the building indoors is very good. A walk taken outside is even better. Nature has a de-stressing effect on our biological system. In that same way, stretching at your desk is good, but stretching while looking out a window is better.

    The very compelling thing about nature….it has impact no matter whether we encounter nature by looking out a window, seeing it in a photograph or being out in it for real. That should tell us something about its power and our biological connection with it.
  • Longer isn’t necessarily better. An important benefit happens even in the time it takes to eat a snack, do a little stretching, or look out the window.
  • Taking a break with pets has a fantastic return; like nature, interacting with a furry friend lowers cortisol levels and boosts psychological wellbeing, which is linked with good performance.
Can you guess what is not the most helpful kind of break to take?

Yep, scrolling through social media which is the most common form of taking a break with almost 97% of people in the HBR review of workplace breaks choosing this method at least some of the time. Not only is technology physically exhausting for how it constantly stimulates and over-stimulates our system, but it can be emotionally exhausting, as well, both of which tend to diminish creativity and engagement.
Recommendations for better break hygiene
  1. Foster a culture that believes in and acts on the intelligence of breaks. Breaks need to feel like a positive and necessary thing to do and it needs to feel safe doing so. Changing the culture includes spreading the word in publications and trainings, onboarding, meetings, signage, encouragement, and in managers modeling them and employees seen taking them.
  2. Use technological assistance. For instance, Outlook has an add-in called Viva Insights that can analyze the structure of your day, make suggestions that factor in your wellbeing, schedule in breaks and focused work time, provide education, and automatically alter the time span of a meeting to begin five minutes late and end five minutes early to allow for bathroom breaks. It also will allow you to schedule your email so that it will send only during conventional work hours since sending a message at 2 AM  can perpetuate the culture of dedication equaling working at all hours of the day and night. (Of course, many employees in a hospital system do work at all hours of the day or night so this doesn’t apply across the board.) You’ll find the option to add in Viva Insights on the far right of the Outlook calendar home page ribbon on top.

  1. Create outdoor and indoor space for employees to take breaks and provide tools like mindfulness and meditation apps and guided stress breaks that help them take beneficial ones. To learn more about 5-Minute Stress Relief or Relax Infinity, the mindfulness and meditation app available to all Northern Light employees, just reach out to me.
It used to be that the serious employees and superstars of the work world were those who tethered themselves to their chairs while those who slunk outside for some fresh air felt very badly about themselves. It used to be that those who toiled into the evening and on weekends were admired beyond measure while those who didn’t, again, felt very badly about themselves for being a sub-par, clock-watching employee who slunk to their cars after the end of an 8-hour day.
Nowadays there is so much more awareness about the need for more balance and the damage done when there is none or too little. And yet still we struggle with taking breaks. Without a doubt there are occasions when circumstances simply disallow a break which is especially true in the healthcare industry. But even in healthcare, it’s worth asking if it is always true, every single minute, and when it’s not, making taking a break a priority for the sake of performance and for sake of health and wellbeing. 
To your health,