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Working from home: the surprising impact of taking short, regular breaks throughout your day

Posted by for Mental Health

Are your stress levels getting on top of you while working from home? Here’s why taking “microbreaks” could be the answer.

Working from home has made it easier than ever to forget about taking regular breaks. Whereas in the office we might have stepped away from our desk every so often to make a cup of tea or have a natter with a colleague, the isolation of working from home has left many of us glued to our screens from dawn til’ dusk – and that’s a problem.

When we think about breaks in relation to work, we tend to only think about the big ones – lunch breaks, weekends and periods of annual leave. These definitely have a role to play in helping us to look after our mental health and overall wellbeing (especially when we’re working from home), but they’re not the only breaks we should be making time for.

In fact, taking small, regular breaks – sometimes referred to as “microbreaks” – throughout your working day could be the secret to increased productivity and reduced stress levels. 

We’re not talking about anything extravagant or difficult, either. Just two or three minutes focused on something other than work (such as making a cup of tea or chatting on the phone) can make all the difference; studies have shown that microbreaks can improve our ability to concentrate, help prevent injuries and reduce workplace stress. They’ve even been proven to increase the happiness we feel towards our jobs.

So, how do they work? According to psychotherapist and counselling directory member Beverley Blackman, regular breaks help us to look after our mental health at work because they allow our minds to regenerate and relax. 

“We know that if we don’t fuel our bodies, they don’t work optimally, and we will end up feeling more tired and drained because we don’t have enough calories to keep us going,” Blackman explains. 

“The mind doesn’t need ‘fuel’ in quite the same way – instead, the mind needs a break from concentration in order to regenerate and allow it to relax.”

By giving our mind a chance to regroup, microbreaks actually have the potential to boost our productivity in the long run, because they restore our ability to focus as we move through our working day. In turn, this boost in productivity can help us to manage stress and therefore reduce our risk of developing burnout – something Blackman describes as a “beneficial cycle”. 

A woman working from home
We need to pay close attention to how we feel, now more so than ever.

“We know that we feel refreshed and full of energy after a holiday or weekend break away from the ‘norm,’ and we know that if we sleep on a problem, the answer will likely be much clearer in the morning,” Blackman continues.

“This is because the mind thrives on taking time away from direct concentration while it processes the information you are working on, and once it has done this, you are better able to assimilate all that information and move forward.

“The mind doesn’t just work consciously – it works unconsciously as well, and if you give it some time away from fierce concentration, you will be able to come back to your work with more energy and clarity than before.”

The idea of letting our brains work “unconsciously” may be a strange one, but you’re probably more familiar with it than you think. For example, how many times has a brilliant idea come to you in the shower? When we allow our brains to wander and focus on things other than work, we give them an opportunity to process information and come up with new ideas.

Its why research has shown that “aha” moments came more often to people who take breaks – just like how sleep helps us to consolidate memories and process the events of our day in our dreams, so too does “waking rest” help our brains to sort through all the information it’s received and come to understand things more clearly.

“Taking a ‘power break’ helps your brain to process and retain chunks of information, and in doing so improves your ability to see the ‘wood’ from the ‘trees’,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan. “Taking a break also helps you to return to work feeling more refreshed so your productivity improves.”

Dr Brewer continues: “The time you spend away from your desk doesn’t have to be long – traditional advice is to take a break of around 10 minutes every hour, but not necessarily all in one block. In fact, research suggests it’s better to take shorter, more frequent breaks (e.g. two-three minutes every 20 minutes) than taking longer breaks less often.

“Set a reminder on your watch or computer so you don’t forget.”

Even if you’re not ready to incorporate lots of microbreaks into your day, setting yourself reminders to step away from your desk is an important way to ensure you don’t overwork yourself. 

A woman's hands holding a cup of tea
A microbreak can be something as simple as making a cup of tea – anything that takes your mind away from work for a minute or two.

“It helps to plan your breaks throughout the day, so that you can give your mind an opportunity to focus on something else,” Blackman says. “Grab your diary and give yourself a little time mid-morning, at lunchtime and mid-afternoon, so that you break up the day into sections.”

She continues: “Make the break nice for yourself so that you appreciate it – step away from your screen, check in with how your body feels and see if you are carrying any tension physically. Breaks need not be long, but the changes they bring about in you will become apparent very quickly.”

Although it may initially seem laborious to incorporate so many mini-breaks into your working day, it’s clear that giving yourself (and your brain) time to breathe can be incredibly beneficial for your mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Giving yourself these little moments of ‘you’ time throughout the day is incredibly important, especially when so many of us are struggling with our mental health as a result of WFH during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Its why Stylist is asking everyone to start taking their Work 5 A Day – five scientifically-proven mental health breaks that encourage mental space, connection, movement and stress reduction throughout your working day. Part of our Work It Out campaign supported by Mind, these five prompts are designed to help tackle the rise in burnout as a result of the pandemic.

Indeed, at a time when we’re struggling to establish clear boundaries between our work and personal lives, giving ourselves permission to step back and distance ourselves from our laptops at regular intervals – and put our mental health first in doing so – is more important than ever. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.