Celebrate Women’s History Month…
Take a Break That Actually Works for You

Take a Break That Actually Works for YouWomen often burn the candle at both ends. You give your all in your career or business, tune in to the needs of team members, possibly care for children and other relatives, and often simply serve as the social glue that keeps society humming. Chances are, you need a break. With a few hints, you can hit pause in a way that truly refreshes and reenergizes in the short term and helps prevent burnout and health issues long term.

Why breaks matter

If you’re a leader who likes to power through and equates more work hours with guaranteed greater productivity, you may want to stop just long enough to learn why that approach can sometimes lead to accomplishing less. Studies show that engaging in mental work without breaks depletes neural resources much the way running a car burns through fuel and physical labor results in a tired body. Mental fatigue can lead to poor performance.

In a study reported in Applied Cognitive Psychology, college students were asked to perform a task that required attention and focus. Some students received no breaks in a 45-minute work session. Other students were given a mid-point break to listen to music, sit quietly, watch a video or do any activity they chose without leaving the room. All those who received a break performed better than those who had none.

One of the most valuable assets you have is your expertise, and how you apply that knowledge in useful and creative ways. When your mind isn’t up to the task, you risk sub-par performance.

Helping entrepreneurs unplug

Entrepreneurs in particular have what researchers describe as work that is both rich in stressors (uncertainty, high responsibility and intense workloads) but that can also be rich in well-being resources, such as meaning and autonomy. While it can be difficult to find the time for recovery, research shows it boosts productivity and especially creativity.

“It can be easier to convince entrepreneurs to engage in self-care (recovery experiences and activities) when we demonstrate that doing so makes them more creative,” explains Ute Stephan, Ph.D., Professor of Entrepreneurship at King’s College London who has studied entrepreneurs’ well-being and happiness for more than two decades. “Then, recovery is seen less as an additional cost (time away from the business) and more as an investment in productivity.” She also points to the need for business owners to understand the importance of recovery so they support breaks for their employees.

Take a better break

The science of effective work breaks is known as “recovery research” and includes both recovery activities (such as physical exercise) and recovery experiences (such as disconnecting from work mentally and emotionally). Both are associated with greater well-being and decreased stress and exhaustion. Workers need both breaks during the work day and space between their professional and personal lives. Everyone is different, so you need to experiment with the activities and experiences that work best for you, but the research provides some helpful guidelines for effective breaks.

  • Mid-morning breaks may be more effective than an afternoon break. That may be because your energy level is still fairly high earlier in the day and a break can provide just the boost needed to continue to work effectively. The afternoon might be better used for less mentally demanding tasks or those that differ from morning activities.
  • Highly immersive activities that enable you to forget everything else for a while can be particularly valuable for detaching from work after hours.
  • Physical exercise also shows strong recovery results with especially robust recovery effects from being outside in nature.
  • Guided relaxation exercises and meditation can be particularly helpful if your work is especially stressful or demanding. Research shows they can lessen strain and fatigue even more effectively than taking a walk.
  • Socializing with others shows upsides and downsides. If you enjoy your colleagues and can engage in fun lunchtime activities or upbeat conversation, it can be energizing. But if relationships are challenging, or your boss joins the mix, interactions can become stressful or performance focused.
  • High-quality sleep is something entrepreneurs especially value, according to Dr. Stephan’s research. Perhaps like new parents, founders are so consumed taking care of their “baby” that the opportunity to unplug becomes even more powerful.
  • Mixing things up by allowing people to choose activities they especially enjoy led to fewer negative health symptoms, higher job satisfaction and lower rates of burnout in a study by Baylor University.
  • Building in greater separation between work and home creates critical “detachment” from work. A study in Germany found that employees who detached more during their off-hours experienced less stress without becoming less engaged.

The data are clear that breaks throughout the day, and greater separation between work and home, tend to reduce stress, emotional strain and burnout while boosting performance. You will need to experiment with the types of breaks that work best for you, and encourage your team to do the same.