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FRSA John Owen shares his research into the potential of breaks for restoring wellbeing and performance.

Over a 25-year career in media and advertising, I've witnessed the obliteration of natural downtime. Thanks to mass, mobile connectivity, we are now empowered in lots of ways, thanks to near-permanent access to information and resources; but we are also enslaved – since chief amongst those resources is each other. Hence, we are always on call. And there is no excuse not to be always on the go.

In a survey of knowledge workers conducted as part of my study:

  • 70% of respondents checked their work email at home, yet only 30% say this is an expectation set of them 
  • 82% don't take breaks during the working day
  • 80% don't take account of energy levels when considering the task at hand

Recently, psychologists including Charlotte Fritz and Sabine Sonnentag have investigated whether breaks from work are important. Their initial focus was on breaks outside of the working day - switching off in the evenings, at weekends and while on holiday. The benefits of this for energy and well-being are pretty conclusively established by these studies.

Partly in consequence, we are now seeing employer attitudes and policies changing - for example, Daimler, Volkswagen, Huffington Post and the Wieden & Kennedy advertising agency are amongst those who have restricted access to email during downtime.

But much less research has been conducted into the effects of breaks during the working day. The study I conducted for my Masters dissertation at the LSE attempts to help redress this.

What promotes recovery from work fatigue?

The main findings from studies undertaken in this area so far identify two key factors in promoting recovery:

  • the pursuit of relaxing break activities and;
  • the autonomous choice of break activities.

But it is not clear which is the primary factor.

Some theories (e.g. Conservation of Resources Theory by Hobfoll and Ego Depletion Theory by Baumeister and colleagues), supported by some empirical findings (e.g. Trougakos et al, 2008 and 2014), hold that recovery occurs by relaxing the mental resources needed for work.

Other theories (e.g. Self Determination Theory by Ryan and Deci), supported by other empirical findings (e.g. Hunter & Wu, 2015), hold that autonomy moderates recovery. They maintain that recovery can be generated not just by relaxing, but also by taking part in alternative effortful activities – as long as the subject considers these motivating and preferable to his or her main work task. For example, helping others has been shown to be beneficial in many different contexts.

My study aimed to find out whether relaxation or autonomy was the most important factor in driving recovery via in-work breaks. In a lab experiment, I administered two back-to-back, 20-minute work tasks to all participants.

  • To one randomly assigned group, I mandated a 5-minute relaxation break in between the tasks, which involved listening to classical music.
  • I asked a second group to use their 5-minute break to help future students, by answering a questionnaire about life in London.
  • Meanwhile, those in the control condition received no break.

Before each task, I asked the participants for their energy levels, and I then analysed whether the breaks had caused energy levels to recover.

Relaxation works, even in the absence of autonomy

My key finding was that relaxation works, even in the absence of autonomy. In this condition, energy levels returned almost to their starting position after the break, while those in the control group recorded a dip that was significantly different from this, at a confidence level of 99%.

The group that helped others recorded a lesser dip than the control group, but this difference was only marginally significant. More research is therefore required to ascertain whether autonomy is necessary for pro-social activities to have a recovery effect.

For employers, the key finding gives some licence for workplace interventions. If a lack of autonomy does not override the recovery effects of relaxation, then it follows that there may be a place for policies and processes that encourage the use of breaks.

Meanwhile, for researchers, there is much still to do, not least testing these findings in a field setting.


John Owen FRSA is founder of the Decision Practice, a behavioural management consultancy which helps businesses to harness the power of workplace culture. He can be found on twitter @johnowen1966

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