May 11, 2020

Working from home through COVID-19? Take micro-breaks and perform better, UCalgary expert says

Behaviour research and Scandinavian experience teach that breaks improve wellness, boost productivity, reduce errors and more
Breaks lead to better performance – find out why

If you work remotely — stop and give me 20. Feel better? I’ll tell you why.

Those who work from home take even fewer breaks than those in offices, says Dr. Lisa Belanger, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, who studies breaks and their impact on health, well-being and performance. So that brief burst of physical activity is probably just what you needed but were reluctant to take.

“We tend to have more interruptions right now, but less conscious breaks,” says Belanger. In the office, there are the conscious and scheduled breaks such as lunch and 15-minute breaks. But there are also unconscious breaks, such as walking to a meeting, a jaunt to the coffee shop, or chatting over the photocopier. These are micro-breaks and they give knowledge workers time to pause from cognitive tasks to reboot before the next project starts. 

Your brain is probably working overtime if you are working at home during COVID-19 restrictions. Stresses about loved ones, maybe home-schooling concerns or financial worries are all keeping that mental motor whirring. “I think there is a magnifying glass on our habits and behaviours right now because of COVID and because of working from home,” says Belanger, and it is why she feels it is so important to share her research on breaks right now. 

Dr. Lisa Belanger, PhD a post-doctoral scholar at the Haskayne School of Business

Lisa Belanger is a postdoctoral scholar at the Haskayne School of Business.

Breaks are good

“I know it’s not rocket science, but breaks are good. We know that but we don’t prioritize them,” Belanger explains. In her systematic review of research on all breaks in a workday, she has seen that all breaks are at least neutral — but most provide a positive impact on well-being and performance. 

The research has shown that breaks increase productivity. Errors are decreased in medicine with attention to restorative breaks.

Why do we think that working long hours is productive? Everything in science says the opposite, so why are we constantly leaning back on that as a way to show our productivity or a way to promote people? 

The mindset seems to be that we are successful based on how much we work or how often. But are these really the metrics we want to measure our employees on? Is this how we measure our own worth?
“So when we think of our staff and we say we are going to reward them for working long hours, don’t you actually care about their productivity? The thing should not be whether or not they are at their desk. The measures should be their creativity, innovation and what they are able to produce.” 

Grab a coffee and maybe a fikabröd

Instead of guzzling the coffee as you rush to the next meeting or drinking distractedly at your desk, pause. Take Fika. Belanger’s research on breaks took her to Scandinavia where there is an entirely different culture around breaks — a culture that is based in evidence, a bit of common sense and a lot of enjoyment. 

Fika is more than what it is often translated as: a coffee break. It is a ritual of recharge. It is a pause within the day to connect with yourself or others.

“Every company I went into had a cafeteria big enough to host everybody in the company that works there,” says Belanger. The wall of 24 microwaves she faced in one break room blew her mind. 

Why are there so many microwaves when there are 60 people that work here? They said it was a big barrier for everybody to eat together if they had less microwaves. So they decided we will just get over this barrier.

Where Canadian or American companies might spend tens of thousands of dollars on solutions to create community, the company simply bought microwaves. The result? No lines. Everybody comes at the same time and everybody socializes. 

Belanger has taken her own spin on the coffee break as an opportunity to create mindfulness. In fact, she has written a book on it, A Cup Full of Mindfulness: For the Busy and Restless.

“I really needed something for my own sanity and performance when I was finishing my PhD so I started drinking my cup of coffee mindfully because the idea of sitting down and meditating — I am a type triple-A personality so the idea of sitting down and meditating was a little bit too high of a goal,” she admits. 

That triple-A personality not only had Belanger finishing her PhD while enjoying her young family, she is also CEO of ConsciousWorks, a consulting firm and educational platform that brings behaviour change principles to the workplace, and the founder of a national charity, Knight’s Cabin, which offers wellness programming to cancer survivors.

“I kept reading over and over the impact of meditation for cancer survivors so I realized, okay there has to be something here,” says Belanger. “If I deem myself a scientist, there is something here and there is evidence.” 

For five to 10 minutes, she comes to her five senses and drinks her coffee. Feels the warmth of the cup. Tastes the blend of bitter and brightness. Smells the scent associated with a break. If a thought about the to-do list pops into her mind, she stares into the black abyss in her cup — pushes the thoughts aside and she just takes the time in the moment. 

“What it really is, is just being aware of where your attention is and being able to draw it to where you want it to be.”

Back to business — but make it different

If you don’t live in Scandinavia, how do you bring a bit of break culture into North American offices? Belanger has been researching just that in a Mitacs project with Alberta Treasury Branches (ATB). Mental health and well-being are a priority for ATB and they have a number of remote workers in their organization (even before COVID-19 restrictions). They recruited Belanger to help build a new break culture in their organization.

“When I am working with leaders and breaks, they need more of a ‘convince me,’ because there is no one congratulating you or rewarding you after you take a break,” says Belanger. “We actually reward the complete opposite. How can we then integrate so that leaders understand and model breaks?”

Engaging with nature can come in many forms

Engaging with nature can come in many forms.


Separate work and home with mindfulness

You can separate work and home when there is no physical space by practising a bit of mindfulness before you engage in the next behaviour.

If you just had a really hard conversation with your spouse and then have to lead a budget meeting, don't bring that conversation into the meeting. Belanger offers little practices to leaders to help them move from one situation to the next. 

“The thing done during the break that was most positive and consistent was nature,” Belanger explains. And although there are still many restrictions in place for COVID-19, nature is not closed. 

Engaging with nature can come in many forms: looking out the window, going for a walk or sitting outside. Previous research has shown that a break that incorporates nature provides the best restorative effect. 

Top tips for wellness breaks

For individuals

  1. Give yourself permission for breaks: Some remote workers, particularly in COVID-19 restrictions, feel that I have the privilege of working from home, so I need to be at my desk. Realize you will be more productive and healthier with breaks.
  2. Separate work from home: If you can, set up a separate workspace in your home. Instead of your daily commute, have a walk to start and end your day.
  3. Limit social media time: The research shows the only breaks that were not restorative were social media breaks. The brain is still engaged, not giving knowledge workers the needed rest.
  4. Shift to conscious recovery: We often lay down and watch Netflix because it is easy — this is unconscious recovery. More effective recovery incorporates connection to others, connection to nature or exercise.
  5. Try mindfulness: Mindfulness is the teaching of how to pay attention. It does not need to be yoga or meditation. It is being in the moment — either with your cup of coffee or being with a loved one without letting other thoughts intrude. 

For supervisors

  1. Success is how well you recover: Take a lesson from high-performance athletes. Recovery is just as important to your performance as your work. Chronic stress results when there is ineffective recovery between bouts of stress. 
  2. Build a culture of mindfulness: Talk about mindfulness in team meetings. Share strategies to use mindfulness to make transitions between work and home. 
  3. Avoid ‘shoulds’: Behaviour change for wellness work best when goals are personalized and flexible. Avoid pronouncements that include “should.” Try using the statement “not yet, now what” as you journey to your new goals.  
  4. Model breaks: Talk with your team about how you are incorporating breaks during the day — both to ensure breaks are respected but also to show they are encouraged.
  5. Shift expectations to performance: Work with your team to develop new metrics to measure performance instead of desk time.