Research shows that switching off can help us recharge our mental batteries, improving focus. Time away also can free our minds to wander into other, important realms and puts previous work in a more objective light when we give it a second look, assisting in goal revaluation.
CEOs rushing to schedule more breaks in their own or their employees’ days, however, should beware. Some types of breaks ultimately can be more productive than others. And, according to new research, it’s the whole planning element that can be a problem.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Harvard Business School studied the effects of two types of breaks—expected and unexpected—on two types of workers: tomato pickers and office workers.
“These findings … suggest that managers should find ways to introduce unexpected breaks—with uncertain, and varying lengths, and during which employees rest in place—into the production processes.”
After monitoring the activity of 212 tomato pickers, they found that workers returning from the end of a planned 20-minute break picked fewer tomatoes. A second category of workers, who were suddenly asked to stop picking to help fix a harvester, also suffered a decline in productivity.
A third and final group, who had to wait unexpectedly for a trailer for an unknown time period, ended up being more productive, picking 12.81% more tomatoes immediately after their return to work.
The results back up the researchers’ theory that taking planned breaks disrupts workers’ mental focus, allowing them to concentrate on things like family relationships or holidays, that are hard to shake when they return to work. Similarly, workers given an unexpected break caused by having to focus on something else, in this case fixing a harvester, also were left with a lingering mental distraction.
That wasn’t a problem for the third third group of workers because they received an unplanned break with no prescribed alternative focus. Sure, they could switch off—to an extent—but they had no idea how long their break would be. This group found it easier to get back into the flow.
A second experiment involved giving 528 subjects tasks using computer screens, including solving puzzles or writing essays. It also found that individuals exposed to unexpected breaks, caused in this instance by frozen screens, either solved problems more accurately or produced essays with a greater word-count.
“These findings should be immediately, and practically, applicable in operating environments,” the authors concluded. “They suggest that managers should find ways to introduce unexpected breaks—with uncertain, and varying lengths, and during which employees rest in place—into the production processes.” They also recommended that managers take advantage of the prospective benefits created by interruptions.
How this always could apply practically, however, wasn’t explained. Just try telling workers they can no longer have scheduled breaks. It would cause an uproar.
The results, however, indicate that it could be at least helpful for CEOs to offer themselves and others scope to take breaks more spontaneously—and perhaps not try to think too much while they’re at it.