Research suggests it is important to give workers autonomy over when they take microbreaks ViktoriaSapata/Depositphotos

New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests employees are more engaged and less fatigued when given the freedom to take brief, impromptu “microbreaks” whenever they feel the need throughout a workday.

For many office workers, lunchtime is the only real breakaway from the focus of a long workday. And even then, one survey found over half those questioned said they end up eating lunch at their desk.

Employers perhaps don’t look kindly upon those workers who seem to take frequent microbreaks. It may seem like lots of little chats with colleagues or short jaunts from one’s desk belie an unfocused mind, but a growing body of research is starting to indicate consistent tiny breaks can reduce fatigue, improve well-being, and ultimately enhance general work engagement.

“A microbreak is, by definition, short,” explains Sophia Cho, from North Carolina State University and co-author on the new study. “But a five-minute break can be golden if you take it at the right time.”

The new research surveyed the behaviors of two cohorts of office workers, 98 subjects in the United States and 222 subjects in South Korea. As well as tracking movements across a given workday, the surveys asked about sleep quality and general levels of fatigue.

The researchers were interested in how fatigue in the morning, perhaps from a bad night of sleep, influenced the frequency of microbreaks throughout the subsequent workday. Unsurprisingly, those more tired in the morning took more frequent microbreaks. But importantly, those engaging in microbreaks reported better overall work engagement and less fatigue at the end of the day.

“Basically, microbreaks help you manage your energy resources over the course of the day – and that’s particularly beneficial on days when you’re tired,” notes Cho.

One key to the benefits of microbreaks, Cho explains, is allowing employees the freedom to choose when to take the break. This means organizations cannot rigorously schedule this kind of activity but instead it requires a degree of trust and autonomy in an employee.

“Our study shows that it is in a company’s best interest to give employees autonomy in terms of taking microbreaks when they are needed,” says Cho. “When people think their employer cares about their health, they feel more empowered to freely make decisions about when to take microbreaks and what type of microbreaks to take. And that is ultimately good for both the employer and the employee.”

The idea of breaking a workday up into shorter periods of focus, interspersed with brief fleeting breaks, goes back to a key study in the 1980s. That research found breaking up 40 minute periods of sustained focus with short pauses led to lower heart rates and less work errors. However, the research at the time struggled to home in on an ideal microbreak duration – 30 seconds, for example, was not long enough.

Since then, plenty of studies have uncovered benefits to fragmenting a workday with microbreaks. From 40-second breaks looking at green city views to sporadic stretches of time surfing the internet for personal interest, a variety of microbreak methods have been proposed.

And while no general all-purpose methodology for how to best microbreak has been uncovered, this new research suggests employee autonomy is fundamental allowing individuals to modulate their own energy and engagement levels across a workday.

The new study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: NC State

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