Spain’s announced a trial of four day working week. Hybrid working is the buzzword on everyone’s lips and no meeting days are becoming increasingly commonplace. Clearly there are big changes afoot to reform the world of work.
Yet while all these bold changes are being discussed, the day-to-day reality of many is that they are working longer (on average people are working an extra 4 days in unpaid overtime every month) and feeling more burned out.
Cultures of presenteeism have been replaced by an obligation to feel “always on”: 44% of employees feel like they never entirely switch off from work.
And this is not just a pandemic problem. Even before 2020 we knew that remote workers were less likely to take breaks. In 2019, a study of remote employees by Hubspot found that only 1 in 3 took an hour long lunch break, with 1 in 4 shouldering on while eating at their desk.
This is a problem for companies. Although remaining chained to the desk during working hours sounds like it would deliver greater levels of productivity, the reality is that employees that take regular breaks are more productive.
A study by Draugiem Group which tracked employees’ work habits showed that those who regularly took breaks were more productive than those working longer hours.
In fact while breaks approximately every hour are optimum, even employees who took breaks more regularly were still more productive than those who never took any breaks.
While this might at first seem counterintuitive, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Who hasn’t wrestled with a difficult problem, only to walk away from it and return later to find the answer staring them in the face?
With all that in mind, here’s five tips to encourage your team to take breaks.
Make use of Slack emojis
It’s vital to normalise taking breaks - and that starts with you, the person in charge.
Often the reason that people don’t take breaks is because they believe that it will reflect badly on them.
A survey by napkin company Tork (I guess a napkin company has a vested interest in taking lunch breaks?) found that 1 in 5 people believed their bosses would think they were less hard-working if they stopped for lunch.
And the worst part about that study is that the employees were right: they also surveyed the bosses and found that more than 1 in 5 of them believed that employees who skipped lunch breaks were more hardworking.
So it’s up to all leaders to counter those assumptions. Make it acceptable for people to step away from the computer and to feel like they don’t have to respond to a message straight away.
Set up accountability groups
Once upon a time you could have relied on colleagues to encourage people to take a break.
When working remotely it’s far harder to see if someone is glued to their computer or burning the midnight oil.
Rather than getting employees to log their breaks internally or report to you (it’s a bit too nanny state), encourage them to set up accountability groups of two or three people so they can collectively track how they are doing.
They’ll feel way more comfortable talking to their peers about taking breaks and it’s a good way of ensuring support networks beyond the office.
It could be something as simple as sending an emoji to a private chat at the end of the day to signal whether or not they managed to take a full lunch break or finish on time.
Communicate the best ways to take breaks
A little bit of internal comms to give advice on taking breaks not only reinforces that management are a-ok with people taking time to recharge during the working day, but it also encourages better break taking which, ultimately, means better work.
So what is good break taking?
Now this may anger fans of the Pomodoro technique, but it turns out the most effective method for taking breaks is not 25 minutes of work and then a 5 minute break. In fact, it’s to work for 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute break.
If this seems to you a little bit too robotically precise, an hour of work and then a 15 minute break is probably good too.
But the key point here is to make the most of the time when you are working. When you are working, you’re focused on the task at hand, not getting distracted by emails or taking “just five minutes” to check Facebook (although does anyone still check Facebook? I think even Mark Zuckerberg has moved on to Clubhouse.)
And if how you spend your time when you are working is important, how you spend your time when you are on a break is equally important.
As our mothers could have told us, getting square eyed by looking at a screen is not a good idea.
One study showed that a break spent looking at your phone has no restorative benefits - you might as well have just kept working.
To really get the benefits of breaks, go for a walk, read something (checking work emails doesn’t count) or have a chat.
Which brings us on to…
Enable working with others
As we’ve stressed again and again, it’s much harder to take breaks when you are working by yourself.
In an office you are likely to take breaks when other people are doing so and it’s easier to see if someone sticks to a sad sandwich at their desk.
And most crucially at the end of the working day you have to physically get up and leave the space, creating a more effective break between work and home lives.
This is one reason why it’s worth offering staff places to work outside the home, even as companies start to realise the cost-saving potential of working from home.
Flexible workspace is a good way of doing this as it allows people to work near home and you don’t have to provide an expensive central office which may go unused. (Plus loads of other reasons why it’s A Good Thing.)
But if that’s not possible due to lockdowns you might want to consider virtual options. There’s virtual office platforms which try to replicate the office experience and spontaneous conversations through avatars.
Or you can just set up a call in the diary every day where people can hop on to have a chat.
Consider whether there are deeper problems
If you’ve tried all this and people still aren’t taking breaks, you may have other problems.
It may be that people aren’t taking breaks because they simply have too much work to do.
Take the lack of breaks as your canary in the coalmine and reconsider work loads and expectations. Otherwise before you know it you’ll have even worse things to worry about than people not making time for a cup of tea and a hobnob.