Feeling stressed and burnt-out? Maybe it’s time to take a break…

Feeling stressed and burnt-out? Maybe it’s time to take a break…

Stress and burnout are two of the most common causes of absenteeism in the workplace and unless managed, can lead to mental illnesses that cost individuals, the community and your business. Like any overloaded muscle in our body, rest and recovery of your brain is essential for sustained mental performance.

The value of taking a break for your mental wellbeing….

You may relate to this….I was working away on collating content for a presentation I was due to present when my daughter burst into the office and announced it was time to go. Sure enough, the time to take her to swimming training was fast approaching. Resigning to the fact that I had to leave things where they were, I stepped back from the laptop. Just as I did, my daughter then announced, “Oh wait, it’s a bit early, let’s go in 2 minutes”. Totally frustrated that I had completely lost my flow, and convinced the 2 minutes would now be wasted, I retorted, “honestly, 2 minutes, let’s just go. I can’t do anything in that 2 minutes anyway!”. She insisted we wait the 2 minutes, but upon seeing my building frustration, she said, “Wait. Just step back Mum. Do this with me”. Rolling my eyes, with a feeling of resistance and reluctance, I went through the motions. She had me deep breathing, bringing my arms slowly up for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, then lowering my arms while exhaling for 6 counts. After 3 repetitions, she declared it was time to go. I noticed the shift within me. I felt refreshed and more centered. I couldn’t believe that my 17 year old daughter actually forced me to do exactly what I was working on (my presentation was on health breaks in the workplace). So just what was going on within my brain to: a/ feel so wound up and stressed, then b/ feel such a sense of release?

Firstly, a bit of science. For work that requires concentration and focus for long periods, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, the thinking part of your brain, plays a starring role. For goal-oriented work that requires concentration, the PFC keeps you focused on goal achievement. Research has shown that our attention and focus wanes overtime. The PFC becomes fatigued. Studies have shown that intervals of goal orientated work broken up with short periods for rest and ‘re-focus’, lead to improved concentration and work performance.

Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. You’ve probably experience this yourself. Feeling completely ‘stuck’ on something and feeling that you can’t progress only to gain total enlightenment half way through your 5km run that you have taken to deal with the frustration. Those ‘aha’ moments seem to come out of nowhere, just when we are feeling more relaxed, sometimes thinking about something completely different to what we were working on. I’ve come up with the most brilliant business ideas (well, I think they were) when I’m taking a walk along the beach, having a run or even taking a long hot shower!

So, what kind of breaks are we talking about here, and how often do we need them? Some scientists advocate breaks every 90 minutes in line with your ultradian rhythm while others believe breaks every 25 minutes are more effective. This line of thought prompted the creation of the Pomodoro Technique of time management (Lleri, 1990), whereby a timer was set to provide a 5 minute break every 25 minutes of working time, with a longer break taken every 4 hours. Another body of researchers suggested 52 minute bouts of focus-based work followed by 15-17 minute breaks.

Added to the effect of prolonged work time on the brain and our mental state is the affect that during most, if not all of this working time, we are sitting. Prolonged sitting is associated with a range of health problems including muscle pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, some cancers and premature death. Many Australians have sedentary office and desk-bound jobs, with sedentary forms of transport, sitting during meals and long periods of leaisure-time sitting adding to the sitting tally.

This is not helped along by the fact that many workers don’t even take a lunch break away from their desk. A 2011 survey by Rights Management in the USA found that 20% of workers eat at their desks, and 13% rarely taking time for lunch at all (Hering, 2011). Taking regular breaks from mental tasks can give the brain time to think about the task and stimulate new ideas (Hawk, 2016). “Without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing” (Seiter, 2014).

Employees who take breaks are more productive and creative. Breaks keep workers focused and engaged in their work which enables them to complete their tasks more accurately with fewer errors (Ferguson, n.d.).

Breaks can also reduce stress. A stressful issue at work can contribute to negative behaviors such as irritability. By taking a break away from the issue or having lunch or a snack, employees return re-energized and able to tackle the next task.

Benefits of taking a break from prolonged bouts of task-driven work include: (i) reduced stress and promotion of enjoyment, (ii) increased health awareness and facilitation of behaviour change, and (iii) enhanced workplace social interaction. Just a 5-minute walk every hour can improve your health and well-being. Movement Breaks provide an opportunity to escape the typical workday routine and relieve stress in a way that promotes workplace social interaction and enjoyment.

Try this 5 minute movement break the next time you feel your focus fading, mind wandering or stress brewing:

At the end of the day, our mental freshness makes us nicer people to be around and improves our output and feelings of balance. Can you commit to taking a break for your mental health each day?

Author: Kristin McMaster, Copyright, 2019

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