Why You Need to Be Taking Microbreaks at Work

A PSA to all the 24/7 hustlers: give yourself a microbreak. It might help you get that promotion (and avoid burn-out)

While not everyone has time to take an hour lunch or a 20-minute coffee break, ploughing through your work mindlessly can prove unconstructive. That's where the microbreak comes into play.

What exactly is a microbreak? Well, a microbreak is loosely defined as any brief activity that helps to break up the general drudgery of a physically or mentally draining task. Creative flow drying up? Spreadsheets morphing into an MC Escher lithograph? Unleash the microbreak.

What the science says

Now to all you never-stop go-getters burning that midnight oil, the idea of taking any sort of break might seem sacrilegious. But remember when we said working mindlessly can be unconstructive? Well, there’s science to back us up.

A systematic review, published in 2022, found that discontinuing a task for any period of 10 minutes or less is generally associated with reduced fatigue and increased vigour. This in turn leads to a better sense of overall workplace wellbeing, while also stimulating the microbreaker to feel more productive after the break.

The review also found that microbreaks improved performance on both routine or creative tasks, although no link was found when looking at performance on cognitively demanding tasks (the researchers noting that these jobs probably need a bit more of a break than a 10-minute daydream).

All very good to know, but it begs one question – what’s a good microbreak, and what’s only going to fry your brain more?

Doomscrolling is ok (within reason)

Logic – or your boss – dictates that social media doomscrolling is firmly off the microbreak menu. But a study published in Social Science Research Network found that “workplace internet leisure browsing” can actually have a positive effect on worker productivity, as long as that browsing does not exceed more than around 12 percent of work time.

Another good microbreak activity? Staring into a flowering meadow for 40 seconds. You’re guaranteed to find fewer trolls there, at least.

But try and give your eyes a break from the screen

While we’ve confirmed that surfing the net during your microbreak is relatively ok, it might be worth giving your eyes a rest. Excess screen use can lead to digital eye-strain, a condition which can result in dry eyes, headaches, and blurred vision. 

To combat this eye strain try using the 20-20-20 rule – take a 20-second break after 20 minutes of screen time, and make sure to look away at something at least 20 feet away. This will help your eyes re-adjust to the wider world for a microbreak your optometrist would approve of. 

Stretch the legs

As well as getting away from your screen, it’s also worth thinking about getting out from under your desk.

The issue is a bit of an epidemic – 470,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the UK in 2021 (although this figure has seen a downward trend since the pandemic). A 2017 study on surgeons going about their daily work found neck, shoulder, and back pain was reduced dramatically with the introduction of microbreak stretching. You know it makes sense, so give yourself that microbreak and save yourself that trip to the physio.

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