It’s OK to take a break.
Especially if you’re working or studying from home and have been doing so for ... over a year, perhaps.
There’s a mental and physical price for feeling like you have to always be “on,” a feeling that working from home can exacerbate.
I’ve written before in this space about coronavirus fatigue and Zoom fatigue. Your brain, quite simply, needs a break now and then.
A new study of brain activity from Microsoft backs this up, with a focus on stepping back from the constant barrage of virtual meetings that have become the norm in recent months.
“Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in (virtual) meetings,” said Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group which oversaw the study, in a recent article on microsoft.com, “Research Proves Your Brain Needs Breaks.”
Why, you may ask, is Microsoft researching this? Because they want to incorporate features into their products that can help those who use them be more productive. It’s about sales, ultimately, but that doesn’t negate the research.
Our work habits — along with all of our habits — have, for most of us, massively changed over the past 15 months of COVID-19. I went from commuting to the office every day to taking a few short steps to my home office/guest bedroom; from attending in-person meetings and interviews to increased individual and group phone conversations and experiencing a huge jump (well, 100%) in virtual meetings.
I’m guilty checking emails and messages first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed. It’s easy to keep “work mode” going all day, well beyond the regular 40-hour, 9-to-5 (or whatever your hours are) workday.
There’s a danger to being a slave to the feeling of always needing to be on, from the moment we wake until the moment we close our eyes for the night.
So, even if it’s part of a sales pitch, the Microsoft research is timely and found some interesting outcomes.
1. When you take a break between meetings, that space allows your brain to “reset,” which helps reduce overall stress.
“The antidote to meeting fatigue is simple: taking short breaks,” the Microsoft article states.
2. The way your brain works changes when you do take a break.
Taking regular breathers not only pauses stress buildup in your brain (and for me, my shoulders!), it improves productivity.
As part of its research, the software giant measured brain-wave activity in meeting participants. Those who took even small breaks had lower stress levels. Those who did not have pauses during or between meetings experienced brain activity that indicated a buildup of stress.
3. Breaks make transitions between meetings feel less stressful.
The transition time between back-to-back meetings (even virtual meetings) causes a spike in stress levels, say the researchers.
So, what antidote do they suggest? A mini meditation break in between meetings. Or just get up and take a walk, go get the mail, refill your glass of water. Also, scheduling meetings at staggered times to allow for some head space is key — maybe start a second meeting of the day at 9:10 a.m. instead of 9 on the dot.
“Try not to use that five or 10 minutes to squeeze in some other kind of work,” Bohan said. (So, bad idea to just check your email ...)
“Catch your breath and take a break away from your screen.”
And Microsoft is certainly not alone in examining this. It’s not a new theory, but it feels apropos of our time.
A (pre-COVID, 2017) article in Psychology Today, “How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers,” states, “Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. ‘Aha moments’ came more often to those who took breaks, according to research. Other evidence suggests also that taking regular breaks raises workers’ level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.”
So, go ahead and step away from those meetings and devices on a regular basis. Stretch your mind as well as your body and take your dog for a walk. I do this every afternoon ... but it’s mostly the dog’s idea.
Do I feel invigorated afterward, like maybe I can tackle a task or phone call I still need to get to? Every single time.
Editor of this publication and the other three Pikes Peak Newspapers weeklies, Michelle Karas has called the Pikes Peak region home for more than five years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.