The work we produce hasn’t changed radically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet where and how we work has been transformed—and the results haven’t always been favorable to our mental health.
A Gallup poll from fall 2021 revealed that nearly half of American full-time employees worked remotely either some of the time or entirely. Additionally, the majority of remote workers—60%, in fact—reported feeling more productive than they thought they’d be. These are positive findings. However, they don’t encapsulate the whole work-from-home experience.
One of the biggest drawbacks of shortening our commutes from miles to feet has been intense feelings of burnout, which can catch us by surprise. Why are we all so burnt out? Because we aren’t taking enough breaks during the workday.
Certainly, we’re more sensitive than ever to our mental well-being—and the well-being of those around us—yet we still haven’t gotten a handle on how to overcome the feeling that we have to be working nonstop while we’re at home. We don’t think twice about scheduling back-to-back Zoom meetings, which doesn’t seem all that different from scheduling back-to-back in-person meetings when we were in the office. But, when we’re face to face, we took time to walk around between meetings, grab a bite to eat or a cup of coffee and perhaps hop in the car to drive to an off-site meeting. In other words, we naturally gave ourselves something that far too few remote workers enjoy now: microbreaks.
Understanding the Value of Microbreaks
Microbreaks are short respites from work. They might be as few as five minutes, but even that brief interruption can have tremendous benefits. As one study from the Journal of Applied Psychology showed, microbreaks give employees an opportunity to have more control over their energy reserves. That way, they can pace themselves and remain absorbed in work throughout the whole day.
Indeed, microbreaks are well-known for their ability to revive the spirit as well as relieve tension and emotional stress. Everyone’s had a moment where it’s best to walk away. For example, many heated exchanges can be tamed through well-timed microbreaks, and cracking tough problems is much easier after a momentary personal battery recharge. In fact, there’s a link between breaks and creativity.
Even someone who’s sleep-deprived after a long night with too little rest can find value in a simple microbreak. The same study mentioned above in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that workers who hadn’t gotten the proper level of rest the night before were likely to hit their proverbial wall by late morning. However, when those tired employees incorporated microbreaks into their routines, they experienced higher engagement at work and less fatigue by the end of the day.
Microbreaks make us better employees and humans, so how can we become better at taking them?
Normalizing Microbreaks while Working from Home
Are microbreaks an antidote to waning productivity and efficiency? Absolutely. Are they valuable tools in our mental wellness tool kits? Of course. That’s why it’s so important to bake them into our work-from-home routines. Here’s how to make them a regular part of your day:
1. Block off time on your calendar.
Whether or not your colleagues can see your calendar, start blocking off periods of time to do something other than work. For instance, you might set aside 15 minutes in the middle of the morning and again in the afternoon. During that time, do something for yourself—go for a walk, read an article, watch a video, do a short meditation, call a friend or eat lunch in peace—anything that doesn’t include work. Sadly, almost three in 10 remote employees don’t break for meals during the workday. Blocking off specific time for microbreaks will help you rebalance your work-life responsibilities.
2. Get protective about your meeting availability.
You might not be able to say “no” to every meeting request, but you can probably make yourself less available. In addition to blocking off time for microbreaks on your calendar, aim to block off periods where you can work without interruptions from meetings. Talk with your supervisor and teammates to come up with a way to let them know when you’ll be temporarily unavailable. By controlling access to your on-the-clock times, you can reduce the mental fatigue and strain that comes from being pulled in too many directions.
3. Ditch the guilt.
In order to embrace microbreaks, you need to be comfortable with taking them—even if it makes you feel guilty. In fact, six in 10 workers report feeling bad about taking breaks while on the job. Why feel guilty, though, when you could benefit from a little time to regroup and refresh? If you need to mentally log off for a while, you’re doing your employer a favor. We need breaks to get our work done and maximize our productivity. However, you don’t want to spend more time taking breaks than working, so it’s about finding a balance that meets your needs.
4. Stay firm on your boundaries.
You’ve set boundaries. What gets tricky is when people schedule over your blocked-off time. We all must be flexible to important priorities coming up, but just be careful that you aren’t deprioritizing these important breaks. Let’s say you have a client meeting from 10 to 10:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. If another meeting comes up at the same time, would you cancel your client meeting? Of course not.
Consider using that same mindset with your scheduled breaks. They are important for you and your overall productivity and should be prioritized wherever possible. When you can, consider shifting the break to another time as opposed to skipping it altogether.
Over time, we’re getting better at juggling the operational aspects of remote work; What we haven’t quite mastered is the human side of the equation. Incorporating microbreaks into our regular schedules can be a good first step toward lowering the risk of widespread burnout and improving our performance and mental well-being.
Photo by @AnnaPetrosyan/Twenty20