Taking breaks during the working day can increase productivity, says research

Multitasking, interruptions from electronic devices and on-the-job pressure to produce more, and more quickly, mean employees feel unable to take time out, but this is vital to productivity, according to new research.

A study by Manel Baucells from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing shows the limitations of expecting employees to maintain a high pace all the time and says they need to be encouraged to rest.

They developed a ‘fatigue disutility’ model, made up of two types of effort patterns determined by the nature of the work. They looked at different patterns of work intensity. In jobs where the pace could be modulated, they said beginning and ending the day working at maximum intensity, but taking it easier in the middle worked better. For those doing long day a marathon approach with a short period of maximum intensity and a moderate steady pace during the day was effective.

They say many get stuck in a vicious circle where they start the day tired so take a while to work up to maximum intensity, finding that they are working flat out towards the end of the day and meaning they are tired for the following day.

In some jobs, however, effort cannot be modulated. In such cases the researchers found the best approach was to begin and end the day with ‘on’ periods, but take breaks during the day. “Far from unproductive, such breaks should be seen as investments in future productivity, because they actually smooth out the fatigue level and recreate the “take it easy” portion mentioned above,” said Manel Baucells.

They gave the example of marking exams, a task that requires consistent mental concentration and effort. The researchers show that working without breaks for 10 hours results in 15 exams graded. A model of starting and ending the day working two hours straight and then incorporating three breaks of 45 minutes spaced regularly throughout the rest of the day,  the total working time drops to seven hours and 30 minutes, while the total output increases to 19 exams marked. 

“The bottom line is, when it comes to rest and managing fatigue, the incentives of companies and workers are perfectly aligned: Reducing fatigue increases productivity, lowers the cost of providing effort, increasing work satisfaction, lowering turnover and absenteeism, and ultimately increasing profits,” said Baucell. “Google seems to have learned this lesson and makes the work environment pleasant, promoting fun distractions, while at the same time encouraging long work hours.”

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