Why you should encourage ‘unexpected breaks’

Not all breaks are created equal, according to a new Harvard study

Why you should encourage ‘unexpected breaks’
The question of how best to structure the work day is important for most organisations and the one thing employers need to take into consideration is the type of breaks employees are taking, according to researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina.

Breaks are often seen as a ‘necessary evil’ – inevitable but non-productive, but in their paper The Microstructure of Work: How Unexpected Breaks Let You Rest, but Not Lose Focus, researchers Pradeep Pendem, Paul Green, Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino said that they are “more than merely a palliative experience but can actually yield post-break improvements in performance”.

They said that there are three types of breaks at work:
  1. traditional, expected breaks;
  2. unexpected breaks that are distracting; and
  3. unexpected breaks during which a person maintains focus.
Of all three types, it is the last one that has the most positive effect on an employee’s productivity, they claimed. They defined this type of break as “unplanned pauses of unknown length in the work stream during which the employee is not required to attend to anything outside the primary work task”.

Unexpected work breaks that maintain focus allow an employee to recharge and rejuvenate but without disengaging cognitively, thus removing “negative post-break costs to productivity” and creating the best organisational value, they said.

When taking traditional breaks, employees usually plan to fully disengage from their tasks but this leads to needing a “mental reboot” when it comes time to get back to work, they explained.

To test their hypothesis, more than 300 workers were asked to do 10 rounds of a particular task with expected two-minute breaks scheduled after the fifth round. In the ‘unexpected break’ portion, participants were told at random to “remain ready to continue” while looking at a spinning wheel.

They found that participants in the ‘unexpected break’ portion consistently performed better than their ‘expected breaks’ counterpart.

“Participants who experienced the unexpected break reported being more alert and engaged in lower levels of mind wandering as compared to participants who experienced the expected break,” they noted.

“These studies suggest that researchers — and practitioners — should think of breaks as a set of two simultaneous experiences: physical disengagement from the work task and cognitive disengagement from the work task,” they added.

How can you encourage more ‘unexpected breaks’ at work? Author Daniel Kleinman at Forbes suggested holding an impromptu brainstorming session or even a short lecture to teach employees a new skill.
“Your employees might not realise they needed it, but their brains will thank you for the newfound energy,” he said.

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