Breaking Good: Focused Work Breaks Boost Productivity
By treating downtime like the sidelines of a sporting event, workers can more quickly get back up to speed.
Based on the research of Paul Green
Workers could be much more productive if they never had to take a break.
Of course, there are limits to how much humans can accomplish without needing time to refresh themselves, physically or mentally. Sometimes, too, they’re simply interrupted by unforeseen events.
How can they best maintain productivity when a break is over and they return to work? In new research, Paul Green, assistant professor of management at Texas McCombs, finds that they can do it by treating downtime the way professional athletes do.
Athletes who are called off the field to the sidelines get to rest physically, even as their focus remains on the ongoing play, Green explains. There’s no need to reengage mentally once they’re back on the field because their concentration has stayed on the game.
Something similar happens when a worker takes a break while remaining mentally ready to restart the task, he says.
“There are benefits to remaining cognitively engaged, and you can enjoy those benefits even while taking a physical rest from what you’re doing.” — Paul Green
Learning From Fruit Harvesters
Workplace downtime has been an area of interest to researchers for years, but no clear consensus has emerged about how it affects productivity after workers return to work — except that it generally detracts. One study found that interruptions consumed 28% of the average working day and cost businesses $588 billion a year.
What was missing from prior research, Green found, were comparisons of one kind of interruption to another. Were some types more helpful or less harmful than others?
So Green, along with colleagues Pradeep Pendem of the University of Oregon and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina, studied various types of work interruptions and how they affected productivity.
Green and his colleagues examined fruit harvesters in the field. Their data covered 211 workers, yielding 117,581 truckloads of fruit harvested for 9,819 shifts.
The data came from GPS technology used by the harvesters’ employers, Green says. “Each load was tracked down to the second — exactly when it started and ended, who was harvesting it, what the harvester unit was, what field it came from, and everything else.”
The data also included events that interrupted the workers’ efforts. To assess their effects, the researchers looked at two components: whether the breaks included physical labor, and whether they distracted attention from the primary task.
They compared four types of interruptions:
· High Physical/High Distraction, such as helping to fix broken machinery.
· High Physical/Low Distraction, such as moving from one field to another.
· Low Physical/High Distraction, such as a scheduled lunch break.
· Low Physical/Low Distraction, such as an unplanned pause while waiting for a new trailer to arrive.
The first three types, the researchers found, had negative effects on productivity. But the fourth type — low physical labor and low distraction — made workers more productive once they returned to work. For every five minutes they paused, productivity improved 7.12%, equivalent to an extra 130 pounds of harvested fruit.
The reason, Green says, is that distracted attention is akin to forced multitasking. When workers must refocus after a lunch break, they lose some productivity. By contrast, short pauses let them remain focused on their tasks, even during downtime.
“There are two components to any break or interruption: the physical component and the cognitive component,” Green says.
“What we’re basically arguing for is allowing a person to back out of the physical part for a while, to replenish their energy, but to remain engaged cognitively.” — Paul Green
The findings suggest several strategies for taking better breaks, Green says, using them to improve productivity:
Keep Focus. Before a break, a worker should remember the tasks that still need to be completed or the remaining goals for the shift. By maintaining that focus, the study says, a worker gets the “rejuvenating physical and mental benefits of a break without incurring the considerable cognitive restart costs of a scheduled break.”
Sub-Tasks. Workers should take breaks after completing a sub-task, such as finishing the loading of a trailer with fruit, rather than in the middle of an ongoing task.
Avoid Distraction. Workers should avoid using breaks to engage in other efforts — such as random monitoring of machine components — that can shift attention from the task at hand.
Those strategies also can be useful for nonphysical labor. The researchers ran a few studies on office work and found similar results. At least for some types of white-collar or office jobs, the effects are similar in size and direction.
Green applies the findings personally, too. When writing for several hours, he takes a five-minute pause every hour or so.
“I won’t write, and I’ll just ruminate on what I’ve written up to this point,” Green says. “I’m building energy stores, but I’m not going to have to go through the arduous process of getting back into the groove when I put my hand back on the keyboard.”
“The Microstructure of Work: Understanding Productivity Benefits and Costs of Interruptions” is published in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management.
Story by Jeremy M. Simon