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Work and occupational

Gimme a (micro)break!

New meta-analysis finds small benefits from small breaks.

19 September 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Taking regular breaks to rest and recuperate is vital — timing breaks appropriately could spell the difference between well-paced productivity and succumbing to the mid-day slump. Longer breaks, such as days off, are usually refreshing to even the most tired worker. But research suggests that's not the only way to rest effectively. Even extremely brief ‘microbreaks’ of no more than ten minutes, taken between work tasks, may also do the trick.  

In a recent study published in PLoS One, Patricia Albulescu and colleagues at West University of Timoșoara, Romania, look closely at existing literature on microbreaks, seeking to understand not only how effective they are in enhancing wellbeing at work, but also who might benefit from them most. 

In their meta-analysis, the team sought out studies that fit a number of criteria. Studies had to: feature participants who were employees or students involved in depleting work; focus on short breaks of ten minutes maximum; include a control group for a comparison; have outcomes including vigour (emotional or physical energy), fatigue, or performance; have a between-groups design. These papers also had to be published within the last thirty years, in order to best reflect modern workplaces, and be written in English. 

The final haul of publications included 22 independent study samples from 19 different publications. Eleven studies used samples of students and ten used employees, while the final paper used what it called “normal volunteers” with no specific definition. Together, data represented a total of 2,335 participants. Most studies had an experimental design, with participants randomly allocated to different interventions, though some used non-random allocation. The majority took place in a lab, though nine studies took place in an organisational setting. 

Most participants in the control groups engaged in free time between tasks, though in other studies they continued working without a break. The tasks participants took part in also differed in each study; some were work simulations or actual work tasks, while others were cognitive, emotional, clerical, or creative. 

The results from these diverse analysis found a statistically significant, but small, effect of microbreaks on both vigour and fatigue, but no such effect on work performance — while seemingly refreshing, microbreaks did not significantly improve performance. 

No moderating factors made of microbreaks more effective for vigour or fatigue, but when it came to improving performance, there were two. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first was time: the longer the break, the more performance increased. Secondly, microbreaks had a small, non-significant effect on performance when the task was cognitive, a small and significant effect on creative tasks, and a medium and significant effect on clerical tasks (though this last effect is only based on two studies so should be taken with a modicum of caution). This suggests that, when deployed at during the right kind of work, microbreaks may offer a boost in performance.

These findings may encourage employers to build in more time for microbreaks. For routine tasks, the authors note, breaks decrease mind wandering and thus decrease the possibility of making mistakes, while in creative tasks participants could benefit from the flexibility of switching tasks. At a time when employers have started tracking workers’ productivity, often to the detriment of their mental health, this topic is particularly pertinent. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that microbreaks should be encouraged instead of longer breaks. As the team notes, research shows benefits for short, medium, and long breaks. Frequent microbreaks are not a replacement for proper days off. 

The fairly small sample of studies included in this analysis may limit the generalisability and validity of its findings. The team also didn’t look at what participants did during the breaks, so conclusions cannot be drawn as to whether some activities are better than others to do while relaxing. Future research could explore this, as well as other aspects of wellbeing outside of vigour and fatigue. 

Read the paper in full