The Best Time of Day to Take a Break from Work

coffee break

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It’s time to stop feeling guilty about your 10 a.m. coffee run. People who take mid-morning breaks have more energy, greater motivation, and are better able to concentrate than those who put off their breaks until later in the day, researchers at Baylor University have found.

The researchers surveyed 95 people about their workday break habits over a five-day period. Those who took a break before lunch were not only more energetic and focused, but they also experienced fewer headaches, had less eyestrain and lower back pain, and were happier with their jobs and less likely to feel burnt out.

“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 authors wrote in the study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective.”

Timing isn’t the only factor that can lead to a “better break,” said the researchers. What you did on your break mattered too. Breaks that involved activities that people enjoyed were more beneficial, even if those activities were related to your job. In other words, spending 15 minutes on a pet work project could be more beneficial than wasting 15 minutes on Facebook, if you enjoy the former more than the latter.

“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,” said Emily Hunter, Ph.D., one of the study’s lead authors.

coffee break

Source: iStock

The study also found that taking more frequent, shorter breaks was beneficial, since it gave people the opportunity to regularly replenish their store of resources. That echoes the results of a separate study conducted by the Draugiem Group, a social networking company, which found that people who took a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes they worked were the most productive.

“Unlike your cellphone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to 0% before you charge it fully to 100%, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day,” Hunter said in a statement.

The Baylor study adds to the body of research showing that taking a few minutes to rest and recharge helps you perform your best at work. People who took brief breaks while working on a repetitive, 50-minute task were better able to stay focused than those who didn’t take any breaks, a 2011 study published in the Cognition found. Spending a few minutes looking at pictures of cute baby animals helped people perform better on focused tasks, according to a 2012 Japanese study.

Despite evidence that taking breaks makes us more productive at work, many people are reluctant to step away from their desk, even for a few minutes. More than 25% of employees don’t take breaks other than at lunch, even though most acknowledge that doing do would improve their job performance, a 2014 survey by Staples found. One in five said guilt was keeping them tied to their desks for eight hours or more each day.

Yet the stress that comes from putting in long hours with few breaks costs both employees and companies billions of dollars every year, according to John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto. Giving people time to recharge is good for both workers and employers.

“Taking a short respite to relax and get their mind off of work can improve employees’ job effectiveness and satisfaction while significantly reducing the strain and fatigue they experience,” wrote Trougakos. “When people can use their break time to do things they prefer, they end up feeling more energized at work.”

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

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