Work Place Health
Why all-work Jill is a dull girl
Everybody knows they need to take a breather. But how many do? Or how many use a break to do chores or other work? New research shows that people who use a timeout for pleasurable activities perform better
October 31, 2007
Jacqueline Szeto, a vice-president and director at TD Securities INC., bags a lunch and eats at her desk most days, unwilling to break away from the midday market action and risk “missing something.”
It’s an occupational hazard in Ms. Szeto’s fast-paced world where, she figures, taking off for a leisurely lunch – and being out of touch – would be more stressful than staying at the office talking to clients, preparing for an afternoon meeting or closing deals.
Later in the day, if the market is quiet, she might go for a short walk.
Or, if she’s feeling particularly “wired,” Ms. Szeto will indulge in her favorite quick fix – an acupuncture-and-massage session, which invariably leaves her feeling refreshed and creative.
Research, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal, has found that working through breaks might ease the immediate pressure on busy professionals such as Ms. Szeto – but that such a work pace, day after day, with no respite, can take a toll on mental energy and productivity.
In other words, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – or Jill a dull girl.
“Everybody knows they should take a break,” Ms. Szeto says.
However, knowing it is one thing; doing it quite another.
Almost half of Canadian employees routinely work through lunch, says John Trougakos, a University of Toronto business professor who has conducted research on the restorative value of breaks – that is, when they are used for real relaxation and not as time to put toward other chores.
In spite of all the evidence about the benefits of taking a breather – if only for a walk around the block or a coffee break – it’s so easy to get caught up in work that many Canadians “won’t take breaks unless they think about it…You have to consciously make a decision to take a break,” Prof. Trougakos, of the U of T’s Rotman School of Management, said in an interview.
Never taking breaks – or using a break time for chores – can lead to mental fatigue and, ultimately, affect performance, particularly in professional services and other roles where employees are required to act positive and upbeat, Prof. Trougakos found in a study he conducted with co-researchers Stephen Green and Howard Weiss of Purdue University and Daniel Beal of Rice University.
They based their research on a group of 64 cheerleading camp instructors, who, by the nature of their work, must always maintain a positive attitude “to help foster an environment of excitement, enthusiasm and fun.”
The instructors’ ability to perform their jobs and maintain a positive demeanor was noticeably affected by whether they took their breaks and, if they did, whether they engaged in enjoyable “respite” activities, such as napping, relaxing or socializing.
The researchers found that those who engaged in pleasurable activities performed better after their breaks than those who used the time for personal chores or work-related activities. (They were assessed on their levels of enthusiasm, energy, alertness and sincerity.)
The findings show that “employees’ use of workday breaks can have practical implications for how they feel at work, as well as how they perform,” Prof. Trougakos and his co-authors wrote in their research paper, Making the Break Count: an Episodic Examination of Recovery Activities, Emotional Experiences and Positive Affective Displays.
Having to be “on” all the time can be emotionally draining, but those emotional reserves can be replenished by vacations, work-free evening and weekends, and relaxing breaks during the course of the workday, Prof. Trougakos says.
The performance of cheerleading instructors “is kind of an extreme example of where something like this would come into play,” concedes Prof. Trougakos, who was himself a cheerleading instructor in his undergraduate years at Oklahoma State University.
But the findings have much broader implications – both for managers who pressure employees to work through their breaks and for employees who choose not to take their breaks.
Many professionals opt to work through their breaks so they can stay on top of business developments, he says, noting that this might buy them some “temporary” relief because they feel better prepared to meet the day’s challenges. The negative effects show up subsequently. “It’s almost a cumulative effect.”
With the growth of the service economy, the lines between work time and personal time aren’t as clear, he says.
“As we move more into a service-based economy – and a lot of people do white-collar jobs where they are at a desk – these lines become blurred.
“It’s at your discretion to take your breaks…and I think it becomes a little easier for companies to apply pressure – without it being necessarily overt pressure – that, well, it’s acceptable to work through your break, or take work home,” Prof. Trougakos says.
Just as employees must learn to manage their own time better to create some balance, employers must also recognize the counter-productive effects of requiring, or allowing, employees to consistently work through lunch and coffee breaks.
Grace Kim, marketing director for Vancouver-based video game developer Next Level Games Inc., says her employer has won awards for its commitment to work-life balance – a rarity in her long-hours industry.
“The [video-game developer] stereotype is guys sleeping at their desks for three days straight.”
At Next Level Games, however, a lot of Ms. Kim’s co-workers actually go home for lunch or, if the weather is nice, take off to a nearby park for a game of soccer.
Ms. Kim enjoys browsing through nearby shops on her breaks or walking along the waterfront. Often, a group of colleagues will head out for lunch at a nearby restaurant.
Back on Bay Street, Ms. Szeto normally doesn’t make lunch dates with friends, for fear that work will overtake her plans.
“If you make a lunch date, that actually becomes a very stressful event because you’re just worried that you are going to be breaking a promise.”
But earlier this month, on impulse, Ms. Szeto made an impromptu lunch date wit a friend. “It was the first one in the entire year. I came back so refreshed. I had tons of creative ideas,” she says.
Ms. Szeto might even do it again some time.
People who take time out during the workday for “respite” activities perform better after than colleagues who work on through, or use break times for chores, says John Trougakos, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
To be a true respite, the activity must be enjoyable – but this varies from person to person, Prof. Trougakos notes.
An introvert, say, might not find lunch with a large, noisy group of colleagues relaxing. While exercise would appeal to a fitness buff, “other folks dread the time they have to go to the gym and get on the treadmill.”
So which activities offer a real break, and which don’t? Here are some suggestions:
Napping or resting – someplace free of interruption
Socializing with colleagues over coffee
Having lunch with a friend
Getting lost in a good book
Going for a walk
Playing video games, foozball
Working through lunch
Preparing for a meeting or presentation
Stopping one job task in favour of another (one case where a change is not as good as a rest)
Talking to clients
Attending medical or dental appointments
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