Tips for Taking Effective Breaks

Nathan Gerbrandt

Breaks are necessary for our existence. They’re refreshing, and they can improve our mood, performance capacity, and overall well-being. In many ways, they function both as intervention and prevention, restoring our energy and enabling us to be more resilient in the face of fatigue and burnout.

As a manager, taking regular breaks has not always come easily to me. I feel deeply the drive to get things done, meet deadlines, and not let people down. How often have I eaten lunch in front of my screen or realized that I haven’t gotten up from my chair in 2 hours?! And unfortunately, I’ve hit that frayed-mind, decrease-in-motivation feeling more often than I’d like over the past year.

As leaders, we need to encourage, respect, and, most importantly, model healthy break behaviour.

Our leadership team is diligent about encouraging breaks and creating time for rejuvenation. As a leader, I have regular individual and team conversations to check in on how people are coping. There have been difficult days, and it’s not uncommon to hear the challenges of a pandemic and high workload creep into these conversations: “Today’s not my day,” “I’m feeling the weight of the pandemic,” and even “…risk of burnout.” My response is always one of compassion, to listen, help with workload problem-solving, and provide encouragement to take a break.

One of our core values is to practice what we teach. As leaders, we also need to be proactive and lead by example. For me this has meant going against some old habits and being intentional about taking my breaks, even going as far as setting an alarm to remind me to take them.

Old Habits Die Hard

Back in my 20s, I worked in the forests of Ontario, tree planting at piece-rate pay. Not to boast, but I did quite well – I planted more trees than anyone in my crew. The thing about simple, repetitive piecework is that it doesn’t take much skill. To succeed, you need to be efficient, effective, and push through fatigue with mental and physical fortitude. The simple adage about how to be the best tree planter is “You plant trees” – meaning you never stop. You drink water while planting, you eat while planting, you ignore minor irritants like bugs, rashes, and fatigue. Breaks only happen back in your tent at the end of the day.

Admittedly, it’s taken an embarrassing number of years to unlearn these lingering habits and recalibrate my inner operating system. For me, my wife has inspired healthier ways to harness that mental and physical fortitude.

Make a Break Plan

When my wife was pregnant with our twins, she attended weekly ultrasound appointments in the final trimester. These appointments required a 2-3km walk from her office to the hospital. She felt the exercise was crucial to her mental and physical health, never mind she avoided having to pay for parking. She was determined to walk to each one, but she had a secret I only learned later: On her walk, she passed about 10-15 benches depending on which route she took. She made a commitment to literally stop and sit for 30 seconds at each bench, whether she felt she needed it or not. This allowed her to keep her heart rate stable, relieve the extra twin weight on her back, and maintain calm breath and blood pressure.

This is not the strategy to be a star tree planter. But at a time when my wife was under unrelenting physical strain, she knew the necessary power of a break plan!

Model Healthy Break Behaviour

As leaders, we need to encourage, respect, and, most importantly, model healthy break behaviour.

There’s a growing body of research around the benefits and restorative qualities of microbreaks. Even five minutes of engaging in an activity that is different for your brain, eyes, and body can improve your mood, performance capacity, and overall well-being!

We all have different dispositions, and experience work stresses uniquely, but we can all look forward to the predicable restorative qualities of a break.

We all have different dispositions, and experience work stresses uniquely, but we can all look forward to the predicable restorative qualities of a break. Our responsibility to those we supervise is to ensure their work expectations allow for regular breaks and that we trust staff to choose the custom break they need for their personal circumstances.

Take Breaks that Work for You

For breaks to be optimal, they need to be predictable and should involve a change and diversity to our mental and physical work experience. My job has come a long way from planting trees and is now very sedentary. So the best break for me is to stop looking at a screen and incorporate physical movement in the middle of the day.

At my home office, it may be prepping the dishwasher or throwing in a load of laundry – anything to take my mind and body out of work mode. I know I do best with opportunities to socialize, plus several little breaks to be active, walk, move, or do some type of stretching at least a couple times a day. I have never had success with meditation in my life, but I’ve found short sessions of intentional deep abdominal breathing enriching for my mind and energy. This is a radical departure from hunched over screen time. Sometimes a work break can involve getting non-work-related things done so we can feel good about and not have outside stresses creep into our day.

For breaks to be optimal, they need to be predictable and should involve a change and diversity to our mental and physical work experience.

Like most workplaces, our team’s roles are interconnected. Accordingly, to break well as a team, we also need open communication and awareness if my break will impact others. As I’ve learned from my wife, there’s tremendous potential to learn how others build in custom breaks when work expectations feel endless.

The office coffee break has come a long way, but it’s seldom been more important to our personal need to restore energy, prevent burnout, and maintain healthy functioning!


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Author: Nathan Gerbrandt
Managing Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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