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The Reason Your Team Needs a Break from Working from Home

Working from home has made our always-on culture even more dangerous. Just as important as the discipline to work hard is realizing when to stop.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 31, 2021

You still have to take a break when working from home – here's how breaks can increase productivity, creativity, and wellbeing

Striving to perform at your best when working from home is heroic. Despite its many virtues, though, a work-hard mentality can become detrimental to your health and productivity.

Working from home has made our always-on culture even more dangerous by blurring the lines between work and play. Just as important as the discipline to work hard is realizing when to stop.

Taking a break has numerous benefits, according to research. Downtime increases wellbeing and productivity. In this post, I will share the science, benefits, and several ideas for work breaks.

Breaks: A Healthier Approach to Productivity

Overworked employees deal with stress and anxiety, which can quickly lead to job burnout. This negatively affects not only employee health and wellbeing, but also performance. People who don't take breaks usually make bad decisions (keep reading to find out why).  

Taking breaks doesn’t just improve mental wellbeing, creativity, and productivity. Research shows that employees who take regular (lunch) breaks are more engaged, experience higher job satisfaction, are more likely to recommend their employer to others, and feel more valued.

As Anne Lamott said, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."

Leveraging the power of breaks at work requires a workplace culture of freedom and responsibility.

One of the key factors driving burnout is lack of control, according to Mayo Clinic. When someone else decides your schedule, workload, and assignments, it's hard to find any balance.

From mandatory meetings to managers expecting people to take calls after 'regular' working hours, an always-on culture ruins the workplace.

We usually think of breaks as taking an extended vacation. While it's critical that you take one from time to time, you have many other opportunities to take breaks weekly or daily.

"Breaks are crucial," says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. "If you're working day after day and not letting up, you will burn out."

Long breaks are ideal for getting a deep recharge, gaining perspective, or reflecting on big decisions. This could include lunchtime, taking a day off, blocking your calendar for deep work, or having no-meeting days.

Intermediate breaks (15-30 minutes long) can help you transition from one task to another, recharge your batteries, or make space for unexpected ideas to show up. This category includes snack breaks, bio breaks, the time between meetings, a short walk, or a power nap.

When time is a limitation, you can still get a boost from taking a 5-minute minibreak. Use that time to stretch your body, mindfully enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, or take some deep breaths.

Minibreaks are a perfect way to ground yourself, regain focus, and get ready for what's next. At Slack, the default meeting length is 25 minutes, employees the five-minute breaks in between meetings to check on their children, use the restroom, or stretch.

The Benefits of Breaks for Remote Work

Taking a break boosts your energy, increasing focus, motivation, and alertness. Pausing to recharge your batteries is critical to perform well regularly – it affects our identity, not just our work.

This Scientific American article summarizes the benefits of breaks: "Downtime replenishes the brain's stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity… moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one's moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self."

A break is a brief cessation of work – we pause for a reasonable amount of time before resuming our activity. Rather than a waste of time, breaks help our brain, mind, and body perform better.

Breaks can help you gain perspective

It's not just distance from your computer that will help you see the bigger picture. You must also switch off to see things clearly.

Psychological detachment, a term coined by Sabine Sonnentag, is a state in which we disconnect from work and stop thinking about job-related issues. People who experience psychological detachment are more satisfied with their lives and better enjoy work.

Taking a break requires more than just stopping work: you have to switch off from work. If you want to gain perspective, start by separating yourself from work thoughts and tasks.

You'll be more creative

Our brain has two functioning modes: focused and diffused. Focused thought is when you're deliberately practicing or thinking about something — concentrating and giving it all your attention. Diffused thinking, on the other hand, happens in the background.

"Aha!” moments come more often to those who take breaks.

When we let our minds wander, diffusion lets unexpected ideas emerge. Rather than forcing ourselves to find the answer, the brain finds its own solution while we’re doing something else.

Breaks help you make better decisions

Working from home has increased the number of decisions teams make. Decision fatigue is the deterioration of our ability to make good choices; frequent decisions wear down our reasoning and willpower.

Taking a break before making an important decision will help you assign the proper attention and energy. However, that's not the only reason to take a break. When we are impatient, we make bad decisions – precisely how we feel when we feel hungry.

Research shows that hunger hinders our ability to make smart decisions; we settle for smaller, short-term rewards rather than for larger, long-term ones.

Become more productive when working from home

You may think that working non-stop will keep your productivity rolling, but studies show our performance gets worse the longer we focus on one specific task.

A University of Illinois study found that prolonged attention to a single task hinders performance. Instead, you must deactivate the goal you are pursuing by giving yourself a break. Downtime will help you stay focused once you go back to work.

Taking regular breaks improves your well-being

Almost half of remote workers report an increased difficulty in getting a full night's sleep. With no physical separation between the work and home space, it's harder to disengage.

Thinking is exhausting. When you’re doing goal-oriented work, you're putting a lot of pressure on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the thinking part of your brain.

Sleep and rest are vital to our well-being. Blocking frequent quality breaks helps us disengage and recover. Also, taking a proper lunch break gives you time to eat more nutritious meals rather than rushing an unhealthy snack.

A 5-minute break every hour can eliminate forearm, wrist, and hand pain. A 15-second break from looking at your screen reduces fatigue by 50%.

Email is work, too. Make sure not to check emails during a break – your brain will think you’re still working.

How to Design a Pro-Break Culture in Your Workplace

In your organization, it's crucial to create a culture where people feel that breaks are not only accepted, but encouraged.

Here are some ideas to get you started. As always, consider which practices fit your culture – values, norms, rules, and priorities. What works for others won't necessarily work for your organization.

Block no-meeting time: Zoom fatigue has been around for a long time, yet many organizations fail to create rules that give people a break. Having a meeting-free day helps people get more work done. That's precisely why Citi, the third-largest bank in the United States, announced it was banning videoconferencing services on Fridays.

As Citi CEO Jane Fraser wrote in an internal memo, "The blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our wellbeing. It’s simply not sustainable. We need to reset some of our working practices." Similarly, Accenture is encouraging employees not to schedule internal meetings unrelated to client business on Fridays.

Let people manage their time: People are more overwhelmed than ever. Not only has working from home blurred the lines, but managers are acting more clueless than ever.

I've been hearing the same story in different organizations I consulted with: people complain that their managers, not them, manage their time.

Priorities cannot be determined by one party only; your team must have a say in whether or not something is important. Respect the principle of first-come, first-served: if your team members are already blocked, don't force them to cancel a meeting just to attend the one you scheduled.

Reward performance, not busyness: In many companies, being busy is a badge of honor – they reward effort over effectiveness. This approach is why most people end up being burned out and doing lousy work.

Successful organizations focus on outcome, not input. Netflix rewards A-level performance despite minimal effort. What really matters is the outcome, not whether or not people look busy.

Promote Psychological Safety: 41% of workers feel burned out due to working remotely, working longer hours, and juggling family demands. Almost 40% have reported doing nothing about it – one of the key reasons is the fear of unsafe workplaces.

Create a safe space where it's okay to talk about being burned out or workload. Don't wait for your team to bring up the topic. Monitor your team's wellbeing by regularly asking them about how they’re feeling or their workload. Practice check-ins to see what's keeping your team worried or anxious.

Set clear limits: In a world where the lines between work and personal life are blurred, organizations must have a standing. Set clear limits to give people a break from work.

Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, believes in working hard, but he knows that doesn't mean working until midnight. In fact, "Work Hard and Go Home" is Slack's mantra. People are not only expected to check out at 6 PM, but also not allowed to contact their colleagues via Slack during the weekend or after work others.

Shorten the workweek: The notion of the weekend – limiting the workweek to only five days – is not even 100 years old in the US. However, most people think the idea of adding an extra day to the weekend is outrageous.

Workers who clock in just four days a week are happier and more productive. That's what many companies, such as TripAdvisor and Microsoft's Japanese subsidiary have found.

If you don't want to go full flesh, try alternating four-day workweeks as Humu does. This startup created by Google's former head of HR, gives employees every other Friday off.

Take breaks yourself: Walk your talk. Nothing sends a stronger message about your culture than your behavior. If you want to create a pro-break culture, start by taking breaks yourself.

When Netflix introduced the idea of "unlimited vacation," the policy's credibility relied on managers' conduct. They had to not only encourage people to take time off, but to send the message that recharging is critical for performance. Senior leaders were urged to take vacations and share their experiences, modeling the right behavior. Consulting firm Accenture's CEO of North America, Jimmy Etheredge, has recovered lunchtime, eating in peace away from screens and recharging in the middle of every workday – he wants to inspire his team to do the same.

Break your meetings: As I mentioned before, people's attention cannot go on forever. If possible, try to reduce the length of meetings or divide them into smaller ones. If you can't, add meaningful breaks to allow people to recharge and build momentum.

Longer sessions, like workshops and team offsites, require meaningful breaks. Our Culture Design Masterclass takes 7 hours, which seems a lot for an online workshop. However, by including two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute, plus icebreakers and shifting dynamics, we've been running dozens of classes with excellent results.

Make meetings optional: If you want people to be trustworthy, start by trusting them. Give them the freedom to choose whether or not they wish to attend a meeting, considering where they can make a more significant difference.

The "law of two feet" is based on the principle that whoever comes to a meeting are the right people. If participants are not learning or contributing, allow them to go somewhere else where they can add (or gain) more value.

Protect lunchtime: We don't have more time; we make time for what matters. Blocking lunchtime not only provides a break but sends the right message: take care of yourself.

At Patagonia, it's forbidden to schedule meetings at noon California time. Employees can go surfing, practice yoga, take a walk, and, of course, enjoy lunch without interruptions.  

Put 'official' breaks on everyone's calendars: Cal Newport recommends that if you don't schedule your breaks, you are constantly asking yourself whether you should take a break now. This could quickly drive you to take more breaks than needed or waste too much time checking social media or the news.

In my previous job, we instituted recess three times a day – no client meetings were allowed and everyone was expected to switch off. We had two 15-minute breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus a one-hour lunchtime. This practice helped us increase wellbeing, camaraderie, and productivity.

Block emails after hours: There's nothing more annoying than people who send emails at any hour expecting others to respond. I understand that some people work at night, but late-night emails hurt your team.

For employees at healthcare consulting firm Vynamic, unplugging after work isn't just a suggestion, but a policy – work emails are not allowed after hours or during weekends.

The Pomodoro Technique: This popular method includes scheduling 5-minute breaks every 25-minutes of work. For some people, it's very effective; for others, like me, not so much. I do better working for more extended periods (90-120 minutes) and then taking 15-20 minute breaks.

That's why I left this method for the last. What works for everyone might not work for you and vice versa. Rather than copying what other companies are doing, use their practices as inspiration.

Every company culture is unique; so too should be the way you benefit from the power of breaks. Work hard and continually monitor your energy and focus. Are you feeling tired or distracted? It's time to turn Zoom off. And, please, don’t make any more decisions when you are hungry.

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