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Build Your Career Office Life

The Best Work Strategy? Take Breaks Early and Often

The Best Work Strategy? Take Breaks Early and Often
Credit: FuzzBones/Shutterstock

Not all workday breaks are created equally, new research finds.

Different aspects of your breaks — the time they are taken, how long they last and what they're used for — all help determine how beneficial a workday breather is, according to a Baylor University study.

For the study, researchers surveyed 95 employees over a five-day workweek about the breaks they took. For the research, breaks were defined as any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected. This includes breaks for lunch, coffee, checking personal email or socializing with co-workers. This did not include bathroom breaks.

"What we found was that a better workday break was not composed of many of the things we believed," Emily Hunter, one of the study's authors and an associate professor of management at Baylor University, said in a statement.

The findings about when to take your break may surprise you. Even though workers may feel they are more in need of a break in the afternoon, the morning is actually the best time to step away from work tasks, the study's authors said. Typically, employees work straight through the morning and then take a lunch-hour or midafternoon break. But taking a breather earlier in the day does a better job of replenishing energy, concentration and motivation, the research showed. [What Work-Life Balance? Workers Say They Never Get a Break ]

"We found that when more hours had elapsed since the beginning of the work shift, fewer resources and more symptoms of poor health were reported after a break," the study's authors wrote. "Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective."

While employees may prefer to save up their break time and take one long respite, taking frequent short breaks is more beneficial, the research showed. The study's authors said regular short breaks were associated with higher energy, concentration and motivation.

"Unlike your cellphone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to zero percent before you charge it fully to 100 percent, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day," Hunter said.

Not all breaks have to be complete getaways from work that needs to be done, the research found. Hunter said there is no evidence to prove that doing non-work-related activities, as opposed to work-related tasks, makes for a more valuable break.

The best break activities are things employees choose to do and things they like to do, which can include work-related activities, she said

"Finding something on your break that you prefer to do — something that's not given to you or assigned to you — are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery and help you come back to work stronger," Hunter said.

In the end, it's not just your energy levels that can benefit from taking better breaks, the study's authors said. Employees who take beneficial breaks experience fewer headaches, and less eyestrain and lower-back pain, the authors said. In addition, these employees also reported greater job satisfaction and less job burnout, the research found.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was co-authored by Cindy Wu, an associate professor of management in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.