In the days when I was the HR manager in a manufacturing plant, we had busy seasons during which we ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and even had some departments on a 12-hour-on 12–hour-off schedule. As the HR manager and safety officer, I had to be acutely aware of issues of both absenteeism and fatigue-related accidents as the season went along. Initially, most of the workers enjoyed the additional overtime pay, especially in the summer when there was often still daylight for recreation when they left work. However, as the season went along, we saw major drops in productivity, an increase in absenteeism, and a rise in accidents on-site. We even occasionally found an employee asleep on the job. Like all good companies, we gave everyone a 15-minute break during both the first and second halves of their shift. Early in the season, these breaks were refreshing; but as time went on, the employees were so worn out that the break actually seemed to make them more aware of how tired they were.

Do Breaks Work?

Since that time, a lot of research has been done on breaks and productivity. As much of work has moved off the production floor and into the office, researchers have wanted to know how productivity has been affected. Many offices have adopted the production-floor routine of offering first-half and second-half breaks, without really understanding whether any value was derived from them. And when economic hard times came, long working hours became the norm, either due to shortages of workers or because of the remaining employees’ fear of being seen as a slacker. People started working longer days, with little to no breaks from the grind. During that time, productivity remained relatively flat, even though people were working longer hours and technological increases should have been making them more productive.

As companies pushed workers to do more with less, the quality and quantity of production suffered. Research is starting to suggest that, like physical labor, mental labor can only be sustained with the benefit of some rest. Many articles suggest that the best way to increase productivity in “brain work” is to have a concentrated work period of 60-90 minutes followed by a period of rest. Scientists have found that humans have a natural attention cycle that lasts around 90 minutes, so managers should keep this in mind when devising work schedules. They should be aware that if workers are going for long periods of time without a break, the quality of the work will be impacted.

Nap Time

Other studies suggest that napping can actually be a very effective tool for increasing personal productivity tremendously. Famous historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy used naps very effectively. Many companies are starting to realize the value of naps as a productivity enhancer, and are setting up “napping” areas and encouraging employees to take breaks. These companies include Google, Ben& Jerry’s, AOL, Zappos, and Nike. If these major companies see the value of a nap, why shouldn’t all companies look at its potential value? I personally believe in the value of a short nap, a habit I picked up during my traveling days. Twenty minutes is about the time you have from when you hit your seat until the flight attendants bring drinks around – the perfect time for a pick-me-up nap. In fact, many airlines encourage pilots to nap in transit – while a copilot covers the cockpit.

Consultation Breaks

Other approaches to breaks are also being explored. One researcher claimed that the time-honored tradition of coffee breaks was not effective in increasing productivity, but a break spent helping a fellow worker was very effective. Managers should experiment with this kind of a broken system. Encourage employees to leave their desks to go and consult with another employee on their project. The key is to try to find a rhythm that works for your office. Work with your employees to help them determine what their own rhythm is, and then coordinate among your workers in order to maximize the value of break times.

Fortunately, in the modern working world, more and more people are having the opportunity to set their own work schedules. For example, I am writing this at 9 pm, having broken my day into several work and life segments. In the world of Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) – an approach originated at Best Buy in which workers are paid for their output rather than by the hour – we will see this more and more. In the meantime, employers need to realize that good productivity comes from people who are not overworked and not overtired. No one wins when a tired employee produces poor work – not the company, the employee, or the customer.

Andreea Hrab

International HR Director for OSF Global Services, Andreea is a veteran recruiter who has seen them all. She developed HR recruiting strategies and retention programs that guarantees the success of the company. She is a people person and she handles very easy new relationships with new employees, but her most interesting challenge is to find the middle way between company’s best interests and employee’s needs. To learn more about Andreea contact her on LinkedIn.


  • Avatar Marissa J. says:

    I think that the problem with breaks is not that we don’t have time, or that we are afraid that others will think we’re slackers. It’s that we often forget to take them. And grabbing a cup of coffee or checking Facebook updates does not count. Breaks are intended to allow us to rest our eyes, move around, stretch our stiff muscles, and get more blood and oxygen flowing to our brains. And having a cup of coffee in front of our computers while checking updates on social media will definitely not help us unwind and obtain a fresh outlook on complex work problems.

  • Avatar Clare Johnson says:

    I’m sure that each of us has a colleague who always seems to get things done before everybody else, but who never seems stressed or desperately trying to complete an assignment. How does he or she get it done? The secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over a workday is not working longer, but working smarter with frequent breaks.

  • Avatar Jonathan K. says:

    One of my colleagues asked me recently, “What am I supposed to do during my break? I gotta get things done; I don’t have time for breaks.” Obviously, she was under a lot of stress and that was not the perfect time for explaining why she should step out of the office for a little while. So, I remembered a study I read about the benefits of listening to music – it can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills, and it has a variety of health benefits as well.

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