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  • Researchers reviewed previously published studies on taking “micro-breaks,” a short 10-minute break from tasks.
  • The researchers were curious to see if the consensus of most studies points toward micro-breaks being beneficial in the workplace.
  • While the researchers learned that micro-breaks can be helpful for reducing fatigue, they did not find enough evidence to support that 10-minute breaks improve job performance.

Being burned out at work can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, health issues, and reduced job performance.

With this in mind, researchers from the West University of Timisoara in Romania combed through 30 years of research on 10-minute “micro-breaks,” to determine what benefits these breaks can have.

The meta-analysis reviewed 22 studies on the benefits of taking micro-breaks, and the results were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Workplace burnout is a significant enough concern that the World Health Organization (WHO) listed it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. The WHO describes workplace burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

According to the WHO, there are three dimensions of work-related burnout:

  • feeling fatigued
  • having negative feelings toward one’s job or mentally distancing oneself from their job
  • reduction in how efficiently one performs their job tasks

Burnout can happen when people feel overworked, whether from trying to meet too many expectations during a typical workday, not having enough downtime, or being expected to work past the contracted hours.

In a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 71% of respondents reported feeling stressed during the workday.

Not only can burnout impact how one performs their job, but it can also cause health issues.

According to a 2017 study published in PLOS ONE, workplace burnout was a predictor of many physical health issues, including coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, and type 2 diabetes.

In addition to workplace burnout causing physical health issues, it may also cause mental health concerns. The same study said people who feel burned out often experience mental health issues such as insomnia, depression, and hospitalization for mental disorders.

For the recent meta-analysis, researchers reviewed studies that addressed micro-breaks spanning three decades. Many of the studies they reviewed involved students simulating tasks in lab settings, while other studies involved people in workplace settings.

The participants in the various studies had to perform a number of tasks before getting a break.

In one study, the authors write, “participants had to complete a series of tasks before taking a respite. These tasks were either relevant to organizational life, such as work simulations and actual work-related tasks, or irrelevant, such as various cognitive tests. The researchers exposed the participants to different types of demands, such as cognitive, emotional, or clerical.”

After the tasks, the participants in simulated studies were allowed to take breaks that included activities such as watching videos or taking a walk.

In actual workplace settings, sometimes the micro-break activities were similar to those above, while other times they involved helping a co-worker, setting up work-related goals, or socializing.

The activity engaged in during the micro-break was an important factor in how helpful it was. For example, helping out a co-worker or doing something else work-related led to negative emotions associated with the break.

According to the authors, “Work-related micro-break activities were associated with decreased well-being, decreased sleep quality, and increased negative mood.”

Participants found physical breaks particularly helpful. “Physical activities such as stretching and exercise were associated with increased positive emotions and decreased fatigue,” write the authors.

The authors pointed out that micro-breaks are not one-size-fits-all since depending on the profession and amount of cognitive ability required, someone in a more demanding position might need a longer micro-break in order to feel a sense of recovery.

According to the authors, “A meta-regression showed that the longer the break, the greater the boost was on performance. Overall, the data support the role of micro-breaks for well-being, while for performance, recovering from highly depleting tasks may need more than 10-minute breaks.”

The authors note that response bias could be an issue with the studies they reviewed. “Because all the studies considered in the present meta-analysis used self-reports of well-being outcomes, our results could be exposed to response biases,” write the authors.

The authors say that in future studies, researchers could use more objective measures to determine the well-being of the participants.

Dr. Dimitrios Paschos spoke about the study in an interview with Medical News Today. Dr. Paschos is a consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health.

“They made an impressive effort to find studies from the last 30 years examining the same or similar questions,” said Dr. Paschos. “Then, they have put the results together and concluded that micro-breaks may relieve tiredness, but do not increase productivity.”

“However, it may be difficult to make sense of this finding or consider applying it to the workplace,” Dr. Paschos continued. “First, the many different studies combined were not designed to be compatible. As such, assumptions have been made and statistical corrections applied that can inevitably sometimes blur or distort the full picture.”

Dr. Paschos also pointed out that since students comprised more than half of the participants in the studies reviewed, the results may not be applicable to the workplace.

Dr. Katie Moore reviewed the study and spoke with MNT about her recommendations. Dr. Moore is a licensed clinical psychologist at Affirming Psychological Services, which is based in Irvine, CA.

“In general, employees benefit from taking regular breaks between tasks,” said Dr. Moore. “Employees show less fatigue and greater energy and enthusiasm after taking microbreaks.”

Dr. Moore also mentioned that while the study does not show an increase in job performance, there is another aspect of micro-breaks that is important for employers who want to retain their employees.

“Although the current study doesn’t show a statistically significant increase in productivity, we do know that employee retention is better if employees do not feel consistent burnout,” Dr. Moore continued.

“Since fatigue and low job enthusiasm can lead to burnout, it seems logical that decreased fatigue and higher job enthusiasm would reduce employee burnout, which in theory would lead to higher employee retention.”

Dr. Moore recommends that employers encourage their employees to take breaks, but to make sure they do not micromanage it.

“The environment should be one in which employees feel that they can take micro-breaks without being questioned and without having to feel guilty for doing so,” said Dr. Moore.