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Updated Oct 24, 2023

The Key to Increasing Productivity? Employee Breaks

Breaks are essential to prevent burnout. Here's what your business should know about when employees can (and should) take breaks.

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Chad Brooks, Business Ownership Insider and Managing Editor
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If you want to boost your business’s productivity, encourage your employees to step away from their desks every now and then. Research both old and new has found a positive correlation between the ability to take short breaks and employee productivity rates. Here’s what those studies say about employee breaks and how you can (and should) act on their findings.

2 Staples studies about employee breaks

Staples has conducted extensive research on employee breaks, and the findings are consistent and eye-opening.

2014 Staples data about employee breaks

In 2014, a Staples study found that more than 85% of employees believed taking regular breaks during the day would boost their productivity. Overall, more than one-quarter of workers didn’t take a break other than for lunch.

The research discovered that one in five employees said guilt is the reason they don’t take any breaks, while 55% said they don’t feel they can leave their desk to take a break.

The study also revealed that breaks can combat workplace burnout: 59% of those surveyed said more breaks would improve their work happiness, and 43% said it would boost their personal happiness. Additionally, 37% said regular breaks during the day would improve their health. 

The research shows that the key to getting employees to step away from their desks to recharge may lie in company break rooms. Nearly 60% of those surveyed said a well-stocked and comfortable break room would encourage breaks, while 76% said break rooms would allow them to unwind and relieve stress. 

The study was based on surveys of more than 200 office workers at organizations of all sizes across the United States and Canada.

Did You Know?Did you know
Aside from break rooms, ways to create a workspace that improves productivity include designating private meeting spaces and creating opportunities for movement.

2019 Staples data about employee breaks

A 2019 version of the same Staples study found that 90% of employees would feel increased morale from more flexible work arrangements. Part of such flexibility could include more capacity to take breaks. 

Similarly, 67% of employees said they would leave their jobs if their work arrangements became less flexible. The study otherwise focused on connectivity, workplace design and employee wellness.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Employees seek the flexibility to take short breaks on their own terms.

2021 clinical research about employee breaks

A North Carolina State University study published in March 2021 found that employees, especially fatigued ones, benefit from “microbreaks.” Occasional five-minute employee breaks led to increased energy and a greater likelihood of setting and achieving work goals

Upon the study’s publishing, other experts added that breaks can redirect blood flow from overworked parts of the brain and refresh cognitive functioning.

The study found that employees in workplaces that emphasized employee health and wellness often took more breaks. They typically met their goals best when they had complete autonomy to take breaks on their own accord.

What other experts say about employee breaks

John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said job-related stress is an alarming trend plaguing workers and costs companies hundreds of billions of dollars each year overall.

“However, these costs can be reduced with regular work breaks while improving employee effectiveness [and] satisfaction, and reducing strain and fatigue,” Trougakos said. “Disconnecting from work can do wonders for people’s energy and mindset.”

“It’s important that employees understand the value of taking a quality break,” said Tom Heisroth, senior vice president of commercial and enterprise sales for Staples Advantage. “Disconnecting can increase their happiness, health and productivity.”

Ideas for creating a stress-free work environment include advocating for employee wellness and helping employees with their leadership development goals.

How to encourage employee breaks

To help employers encourage breaks, Staples and Trougakos recommend several strategies:

  • Provide healthy snacks and beverages. Employees want snacks, and the majority prefer healthy options, such as nuts and granola bars, compared to chips, cookies or candy. As a bonus, healthy diets can improve productivity, so this is a win-win.
  • Think about comfort. Furniture is an important consideration for the overall comfort and appeal of the break room. Employers should provide furniture that allows employees to unwind with their snacks and beverages and socialize with colleagues.
  • Disconnect when taking a break. Trougakos said employees need to mentally detach from work to restore the energy it takes to work productively. Thinking about work doesn’t relieve stress, and employees won’t fully recharge or maximize the usefulness of a break.
  • Maintain a break-encouraging workplace culture. This helps reduce employee guilt over taking necessary breaks and makes breaks more effective. Ultimately, this will improve worker well-being and productivity.
  • Encourage positive energy. Employees should do something during breaks to generate positive feelings, since these emotions are energizing and can improve creativity and increase productivity.

What laws must employers follow for employee breaks?

Although federal labor laws don’t mandate employee breaks, they do regulate how you must pay employees for their breaks. Under federal law, short breaks of up to 20 minutes qualify as fully compensable work time. However, if you offer a break period with a clearly established maximum duration, you don’t have to pay for breaks longer than that period. 

Federal law doesn’t consider meal breaks compensable. However, employees may feel more valued if you pay for their meal breaks as you would for other breaks. The best employee monitoring software can help you keep track of breaks. (For more information, read our review of InterGuard, which is especially helpful if you have remote teams.)

Additionally, certain states have their own employee break laws that supersede federal law. In Maryland, for example, retail employers must give employees working four consecutive hours at least one 15-minute break. For six-hour shifts, the break period increases to 30 minutes. Eight-hour shifts require one 30-minute break and, in the law’s words, “an additional 15-minute break for every additional four consecutive hours worked.”

When in doubt about whether you must pay for certain employee breaks, consult a local employment law expert. Though federal employee break rules are clear-cut, expert help can help you stay abreast of local laws – and any unexpected changes.

Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.

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Chad Brooks, Business Ownership Insider and Managing Editor
Chad Brooks is the author of How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business. He has spent more than 10 years guiding prospective entrepreneurs and business owners on the ins and outs of launching a startup, scaling a company and maintaining profitable growth. Within the world of entrepreneurship, he is particularly passionate about small business communications tools, such as unified communications systems, video conferencing solutions and conference call services. Brooks, who holds a degree in journalism from Indiana University, has lent his business expertise to a number of esteemed publications, including Huffington Post, CNBC, Fox Business and Laptop Mag. He regularly consults with B2B companies to stay on top of the latest business trends and direct growing enterprises toward the modern-day business technology required in today's digitally advanced world.
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