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HC Online: Drop that coffee and get back to work
Author: Stephanie Zillman
Posted: August 26, 2013

Read the original article in HC Online here.

New research has cast doubt over a theory long held to be true – taking a quick non-work related break is the best way to return to work refreshed. Grab a coffee, read your personal emails – we all know the drill. Yet new research shows that those non-work related breaks may in fact leave you more tired and distracted.

A series of studies conducted at Portland State University determined that unless the break is ‘positively’ job-related – such as assisting a colleague or learning something new – short breaks had no tangible revitalising effect, and were in fact detrimental to concentration. While it may defy logic that taking a walk around the corner would not have a revitalising effect, lead researcher Dr Charlotte Fritz assured the Harvard Business Review that the results don’t lie, and she herself was surprised. “The only time people showed an increase in vitality was after they took short breaks to do work-related things, such as praise a colleague or write a to-do list,” Fritz said. “Nearly across the board, micro-breaks that were not job related, such as getting a glass of water, calling a relative, or going to the bathroom, didn’t seem to have any significant relationship to people’s reported energy (what we called their vitality). Some activities like listening to music and making weekend plans, seemed to have a negative impact on energy,” she added.

The research involved a series of studies which examined how people unwind from work, and looked at everything from long vacations to short bathroom breaks. In one study Fritz surveyed workers about what kind of “micro-breaks” they took during the day and how they felt afterward. Micro-breaks unrelated to work—making a personal call, checking Facebook—were not associated with more energy and less fatigue, and sometimes even were associated with increased weariness. Meanwhile, breaks that involved work-related tasks appeared to boost energy.

Fritz warned readers of her research not to misconstrue the findings, and highlighted that the findings did not apply to long breaks, only short or ‘micro’ breaks. “It’s clear that people need to get away from work in some way or another to recharge their batteries…What we need to do to keep ourselves up and running varies with the time frame, however. This research seems to show that on the job, it’s more beneficial to energise yourself through work-related activities,” Fritz said.

The researchers are now testing the findings on lunch breaks, and so far it seems that in cases where workers use their longer-break to reflect positively on work or to learn something new (which could be job related or not), their attentiveness is higher after the lunch break and sometimes even still when they leave work for the day.

Yet whether or not anyone takes notice of the science is a whole other thing – chances are breaks will still mean a quick peak at Facebook with a coffee in the other hand…