Your Brain Needs Breaks, the Benefits of Taking a Timeout at Work

Are you feeling burned-out at work? You’re not alone, a Spring 2021 survey from found more than half of those surveyed reported they felt burned-out. ‘Grinding’ every minute of the workday may yield results, but you’re selling yourself short and setting yourself up for potential failure. Taking breaks not only helps avoid burn-out, it also aids in decision making, engagement, creativity, motivation, and overall health.

Some of the most recent research on burn-out and the need for breaks has been conducted by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab. Their study has shown that “Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative buildup of stress across meetings.” The study examined brainwaves in subjects who engaged in back-to-back meetings compared with subjects who were allowed 10 minute breaks in between meetings.

In the study, subjects exposed to back-to-back meetings showed both overall elevated beta waves which are associated with stress, and a continued compounded rise in those brainwaves over the course of all meetings. Subjects who were allowed to take breaks, showed no buildup of brainwaves associated with stress. In addition “when participants had meditation breaks, brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, which correlates to higher engagement during the meeting. Without breaks, the levels were negative, suggesting the participants were withdrawn, or less engaged in the meeting. This shows that when the brain is experiencing stress, it’s harder to stay focused and engaged.”

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab measured beta wave activity which is associated with stress via EEG in the brains of meeting participants. The study compared those who participated in back-to-back meetings vs. those who were allowed 5 minute breaks in between meetings.
Illustration by Brown Bird Design, source

Beyond psychological health, your body needs breaks from hours spent sitting at a desk. Spending the majority of our days sedentary, most likely in a seated position, elevates your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Adding movement breaks can reduce the negative health effects of too much sitting. Just a 5-minute walk every hour can improve your health and well-being.

Taking a break can also prevent “decision fatigue.” A highly regarded study by researchers Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso found that Israeli judges were more likely parole prisoners after their two daily breaks when compared to long stretches of constant work. With long stretches of constant work, decision fatigue set in, and the rate of granting parole dropped to near zero percent as judges resorted to the easiest option, to reject parole. Decision fatigue can also lead to simplistic decision-making and procrastination. Taking a break can help restore your ability to look holistically at a decision and come to a correct decision rather than the easiest decision.

A break from work can boost motivation, especially for long-term goals and increase productivity and creativity. A study by Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras found that even brief diversions from work or a task can dramatically improve an individual’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. Stanford University research found that when people tackled mental tasks that required imagination, walking led to more creative thinking.

Image source: MonsteraPexels

Anecdotally all of this rings true. I’m sure in your own experience you have found that when working on a hard task or problem taking a break and returning to the task can yield helpful outcomes. Some of my best thinking is done in the shower, or on walks, there really does seem to be something to movement or mild distraction aiding in creativity and problem solving. There is a reason why r/showerthoughts exists. During the course of writing this blog post I both took a break for lunch, and took a brief break to pull some dead leaves off of one of my plants. Both breaks allowed me to return to my computer and immediately make progress on the piece, where I otherwise was sitting easily getting distracted or otherwise was not making meaningful progress. So yes, as lay bare in the raw beauty and power of the prose I have written above*, there is definitely something to taking breaks.

*Authors note, sarcasm. Seriously though, take some breaks, they’ll help.