Take a ‘Better’ Break

Researchers at Baylor University recently investigated an effective way for office employees to take breaks, leading to a better workday for both employees and employers. Cindy Wu, PhD, associate professor of management for Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas, conducted the study with Emily M. Hunter, PhD, associate professor of management.

“This is an era where employees are asked to work longer, faster, better, with the Internet and electronic devices enabling them to almost always be on call — so much so that many employees find themselves not having time to take a break or never really taking a break during the workday,” Wu told O&P News.

Work-related satisfaction, exhaustion and behavior

“There has been little understanding of how office employees take breaks, what make their breaks more effective and what would be the consequences of effective breaks,” Wu said.

Previous studies have been conducted in ergonomics and operations research on the efficacy of work breaks, but only in a controlled setting within a short study period, she said.

Wu and Hunter tracked 95 office employees for 5 days consecutively. Participants were asked to report the characteristics of the activities they engaged in during the break, and status of their well-being after each break. After the 5 days, the employees also were asked to report job satisfaction, emotional exhaustion and organizational citizenship behavior.

Cindy Wu, PhD
Cindy Wu

“This is one of the first studies conducted with a rigorous design, allowing employees to work in their work setting, rather than experimenting on forced break schedules or moving them to a lab to conduct mechanistic tasks then measuring their productivity,” Wu said.

The study cohort included staff members in a university setting, but their jobs are similar to other office jobs in different organizations, including O&P facilities, Wu said.

“In our sample, workers who took breaks in the morning hours prior to lunch were more refreshed and re-energized than workers who waited until lunch or the afternoon to recharge,” she said.

“It allows insight into how employees take breaks, and how to make the breaks more effective.”

Breaks for energy maintenance

Wu noted breaks are needed for employees to re-energize before reaching the point of exhaustion.

“Popular wisdom dictates that you should let your cell phone battery deplete to 0% before charging it, but you are not your phone,” Wu said. “Instead, our research finds you should charge yourself more frequently, taking a break from work before your energy depletes to 0%. … You should pace yourself, similar to how plants should be watered early in the day before getting distressed from a long day in the sun.”

Wu recommended taking a few short work breaks throughout the day, and said lunch and afternoon breaks overall are not as effective as morning breaks.

“[Our] research shows that recharging before you feel exhausted is a more effective way to keep your energy, concentration and motivation up,” she said.

Wu said breaks do not need to be long; just a few minutes sporadically in between work tasks will suffice.

According to Wu, “Not just any break is helpful, but a ‘better’ break with preferred activities and earlier in the day saw the most benefits.”

Preferences affect break benefits

“Short breaks do not cost much time, but can be very effective,” Wu said.

Wu said O&P clinicians should do something they prefer to do during a break, rather than what they have to do.

“[Be] it chatting with coworkers, planning for the evening events at home, checking social media sites — as long as it is your preferred activity, it will help you recharge,” she said.

Through the study, Wu and Hunter “found that preferred activity breaks taken early in the day were associated with more resources like energy, concentration and motivation which in turn decreased reports of ill health symptoms, such as headaches, eye strain and lower back pain following a break.”


The principles apply to office employees across disciplines, including those who work in O&P, Wu said.

According to Wu, preferred activities are more refreshing because the employee has a sense of freedom and control. Also, preferred activities are enjoyable and make use of fewer resources.

Job satisfaction and citizenship behaviors increased due to the increase in resources after breaks were taken, which in turn, decreased the burnout feeling among employees.

O&P managers and small business owners should not feel employees are avoiding their job duties when they take a break, Wu said. Employers should instead encourage employees to take short, preferred activity breaks.

“In the long-term, the benefits will outweigh the few minutes that employees take away from job to do something they prefer,” Wu said.

Future research

“A few surprising findings — such as getting out of the office for a break [and] non-work related activities not related to resource recovery — have led us to think that we should further explore whether one’s natural inclination would play a role in how to take the most effective breaks,” she said.

Wu said employees who are highly motivated to do well in their job may find work-related breaks are more effective than other options, such as reading material that teaches them how to be better employees. Also, employees may like to be out of the office during their break if they have an interest in nature.

“These person-level individual differences may be worth further investigation,” Wu said. – by Monica Jaramillo

Disclosure: Wu reports the study was supported by the University Research Committee grant from Baylor University.

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