Micro-breaks in the office: Researchers still looking for the sweet spot

Great shot! Now get back to work.

Great shot! Now get back to work. Photo: Getty

In 1989 as the Soviet bloc began breaking up, capitalism began trumpeting itself as triumphant over communism – and with that we saw the rise of the human resources department, and all manner of enthusiasm to get more productivity out of workers, and make them feel good about it.

At that time, researchers from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio and Purdue University investigated the idea of the micro-break – which involved giving office workers a moment to catch their breath.

As detailed in a study published in the journal Ergonomics, researchers saw a possible win-win situation for bosses and employees.

Researchers predicted that by giving the workers a very short break from doing their jobs, their worker stress might be reduced and, as a consequence, productivity boosted – and the sacred economy would be further improved.

A quirky distraction can refresh the mind. But keep it short! Photo: Getty

To test the idea, they created a laboratory office, recruited 20 participants (pretend office workers) and gave them a very boring repetitive data-entry task.

The participants’ heart rate and productivity was monitored as they slaved.

Every 40 minutes they took a micro-break, a measly 27.4 seconds on average.

This didn’t involve the faux workers leaving their desks. There was no stretching or moving about, and therefore no muscular-skeletal benefit whatsoever.

Researchers hadn’t planned for that anyway. This was a super boss-friendly experimental design.

So how did it go?

Not as well as the scientists might have hoped.

The participants made more mistakes after a micro-break – but those who took slightly longer micro-breaks experienced a lowered heart rate, and there weren’t quite as many corrections needed.

In other words, there was a hint that micro-breaks might be useful, if they weren’t quite so micro.

Still, it appears the idea went dead for a while: Too much mucking around, too little benefit – and perhaps the idea of workers taking a moment for themselves every half hour or so bordered on anarchy.

In recent years, though, the wrecking effects on a human body made to sit down for hours on end (cancer, muscular-skeletal and nerve issues, hearts growing flabby) have become widely reported.

And, with companies always mindful of legal vulnerabilities, and the nuisance of injured workers taking extended leave, human resources began paying attention to how desks are set up and so forth.

And the micro-break became a real thing

Now the likes of Stanford University advise workers:

  • Break up repetitive tasks or static postures by taking a micro-break (30-60 seconds) every 20 minutes
  • While taking a micro-break, perform light stretching at your desk
  • Let your eyes relax when working on the computer for long periods of time, by implementing what’s known as the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away (about six metres) for 20 seconds.

These structured welfare breaks have gone beyond the office.

In 2018, Mayo Clinic researchers investigated micro-breaks for surgeons, mid-operation, because all that controlled posturing over an open body was taking a toll.

Taking a moment to stretch every 20 minutes is good for the posture. Photo: Getty

As they noted: “Neuromusculoskeletal pain and fatigue have been self-reported by over 70 per cent of surgeons … These problems can become impairments impacting surgical performance, patient outcomes and career longevity.”

The answer? A set of “micro-break activities” (exercises) had proved to be “a viable strategy to counteract known physical, cognitive and environmental stressors”.

These breaks tended to last a full minute.

The holy grail

Researchers have continued to look for the magic moment, the true micro-break that will rejuvenate the worker’s energies and focus, and thereby squeeze out a little more achievement that ultimately makes its mark on the bottom line.

In 2014, a Kansas State University researcher – possibly a nerd out to make friends – did an experiment that demonstrated that “short smartphone breaks throughout the workday can improve workplace productivity, make employees happier and benefit businesses”.

Micro-breaks that involved interacting with friends or family members via texting, or by playing a short game, appeared to help employees “recover from some of their stress to refresh their minds”.

In 2015, University of Melbourne researchers found that “glancing at a grassy green roof for only 40 seconds markedly boosts concentration”.

In their experiment, the researchers gave 150 students “a boring, attention-sapping task”. The students were asked to press a key as a series of numbers repeatedly flashed on a computer screen, unless that number was three.

They were then given a 40-second break midway through the task to view a city rooftop scene. Half the group viewed a flowering meadow green roof, the other half looked out onto a bare concrete roof.

After the break, students who glanced at the green roof “made significantly less errors and demonstrated superior concentration on the second half of the task, compared to those who viewed the concrete roof”.

The green roof provided “a restorative experience that boosted those mental resources that control attention”, the researchers concluded.

New insights

In March last year, North Carolina State University psychologists enjoyed widespread media attention because of a study that found people were more likely to take micro-breaks at work on days when they were tired – and their bosses had no good reason to complain about it.

People who come to work tired have more micro-breaks. Which helps them. Photo: Getty

The researchers, in two separate studies, found micro-breaks seemed to “help tired employees bounce back from their morning fatigue and engage with their work better over the course of the day”.


“Basically, micro-breaks help you manage your energy resources over the course of the day – that’s particularly beneficial on days when you’re tired,” said Dr Sophia Cho, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina.

But Dr Cho’s idea of a micro-break goes well beyond 30 to 40 seconds.

“A micro-break is, by definition, short,” she said.

“But a five-minute break can be golden if you take it at the right time.”

She said the studies showed “that it is in a company’s best interest to give employees autonomy in terms of taking micro-breaks when they are needed”.

Importantly, the researchers found that people were more likely to take micro-breaks “if they felt their employer cared about the health and wellbeing of its workers”.

“When people think their employer cares about their health, they feel more empowered to freely make decisions about when to take micro-breaks and what type of micro-breaks to take,” Dr Cho said.

Micro-breaks are getting even longer

This week, in a review of 22 previously published studies, a micro-break was described as “discontinuing a task for periods of 10 minutes or less”.

Although the analysis revealed an overall association between micro-breaks, higher levels of vigour, and lower fatigue in participants, the researchers found that “longer breaks tended to be linked to better performance, especially for creative or clerical tasks, but less so for more cognitively demanding tasks”.

They concluded that “when it comes to job performance, longer breaks may be needed for recovery from more cognitively demanding tasks”.

The new paper, by the West University of Timisoara, Romania, can be read in full here.

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