If you’re the average American, you’re working a 47 hour work week. And one out of three workers don’t even take a lunch break.
On top of that, unused vacation time has reached a 40-year high – that’s over $52 billion in earned benefits that employees do not use. Many of those earned hours will be permanently lost as the year rolls over.
This is an especially significant issue for women, who, between work and home, work an average of 21 more minutes a day than men. With the business of the holidays, this can add up to an exhausting season.
But that’s the price we pay for our careers, right?
It Doesn’t Have to Be
In fact, it shouldn’t be. Numerous studies have shown that breaks don’t only lower stress, but that they improve cognitive function and therefore productivity. When you skip a break, you actually lose time due to increased stress and lower efficiency.
Your employees need breaks too, and they’ll look to you to model work-life balance. If you’re working a 9 hour day non-stop, they’ll think that’s what they should do. And you don’t want that – you want happy, effective and productive employees, and you’ll get that when they take a break.
If you catch anyone – including yourself – skipping a lunch or working long hours, encourage them to slow down.
The brain was not built for extended focus – in fact, if it does the same thing for too long, it starts to lose focus. Boredom is a real threat to work function, but small breaks serve the essential function of breaking up the monotony.
As a leader, you’ll need breaks even more. Leadership is often more art than science and requires imagination and advanced problem-solving. If your brain is on all the time, it won’t have time to process new data and make connections between all the various information you need.
This is called “diffused” thinking, where you’re doing the opposite of focusing. Sometimes called day-dreaming, it’s actually a good thing – just because you stop focusing doesn’t mean you stop thinking! If you’ve ever slept on a difficult decision or problem, or even just took a walk to process something, that’s what you’re doing. When your brain is loose, it can flex more.
Putting Breaks to Work for You
It’s recommended to take one 20 minute break for every 90 minutes you work. Or, if you want to get specific, you could follow the scientifically recommended 52-17 rule. It’s up to you, just so long as you take a break!
When you step away from your project, you get a chance to revisit why it matters. If you work constantly, you’ll get lost in the minutiae of the task and lose the big picture view a leader needs.
So how do you take a better break?
The answer is simple: do what you want to do.
- Step away from the screen and move around.
- Spend time with friends or colleagues (don’t talk work, though!)
- Find a private place to meditate.
- Play around on social media or YouTube.
- Even take a nap! Some workplaces have nap-friendly policies, while other workers just lock an empty conference room – or nap in their cars.
Just Go Home
The same goes for the larger scale of vacations: Make sure to take one. Make sure to take plenty! Some companies have instituted mandatory minimum vacations to ensure their employees and leaders get the time they need to relax – and work better.