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Performance Factor of Self-care: Workday Breaks

Posted on May 26, 2017

Over the last several months, we have examined the factors that I believe we must address to maintain our health and well-being in jobs with high rates of burnout, secondary and vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue. Sleep, exercise, therapy (when needed), passion, healthy social engagement, and mindfulness are all critical to establishing and maintaining a baseline of health in our lives. This wellness transcends the professional/personal distinction, bringing more energy and enjoyment into all aspects of our lives.

It is upon this strong foundation that we begin our examination of what I call performance factors of self-care. The protective factors mentioned above allow us to bring our best selves to work each day. Performance factors help us channel our passion and energy in strategic ways, which can maximize our skills and abilities and lead to better outcomes and job satisfaction. This week’s post will start our exploration with a simple, yet critical, aspect of performance: breaks.

Our brain is a greedy organ. The brain accounts for only about 2% of our overall body weight, while consuming a quarter of the fuel a person takes in, in the form of both oxygen and glucose. The brain operates similarly to a muscle – the more a person works it, the stronger it gets. However, like a muscle, it also needs rest and recovery, or it becomes weaker and less effective.

Think of doing bicep curls with weights at the gym. You are really strong for the first several reps, but the last few reps are a struggle. The brain is the same way and requires the same rest and recovery in order to function at its best. If not given an opportunity to recover, the brain tires and becomes less effective. We make more mistakes in mental judgments and the execution of tasks.  Creativity, a very energy intensive activity, drops dramatically.

We need to start thinking about two different types of breaks. The first is during the workday, and the second, which we’ll cover next week, is disconnecting strategically from work. According to author David Rock, our brain can only operate at its maximum effectiveness for 90 to 120 minutes before becoming fatigued. This fatigue decreases our efficiency and effectiveness, whether we are seeing clients or doing paperwork.

If we value what we are doing at minute 91, it is important that we incorporate small breaks into our work routine. We now know that the traditional manufacturing schedule was ideal for our neurobiology. Work two hours, take a 15-minute break, work another 2 hours, take an hour lunch break, work 2 hours, take a 15-minute break, end the day. These breaks can be a walk around the block, listening to your favorite song or a podcast, doing a yoga stretch, or talking to a co-worker about personal stuff.

The idea here is to change your energy for a short period. So, if you are doing computer work, your break needs to be something other than checking Facebook or your personal e-mail. On the other hand, if you are seeing people all day, a quiet moment of solitude might be what your brain needs. The key here is to do something different.

These breaks increase productivity and effectiveness. Take two people. One does not take a break, and answers e-mails all through lunch. Another takes breaks throughout the day, paying attention to the 120-minute rule. They both are at their workplace from 9 am to 5 pm. The person taking breaks will get more work done! Also, the quality of their work will be much higher than the person with the tired brain who didn’t take any breaks.

Too many of our workplaces have failed to recognize the importance of breaks as part of the daily routine. Unfortunately, this fuels cycles of burnout, and a tired brain is more at risk for compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma. Let’s bring breaks back! If not for our health and well-being, let’s do it for the clients who benefit from our fresh brains!

I would love to hear your thoughts or strategies concerning breaks in the comment section.

6 responses to “Performance Factor of Self-care: Workday Breaks”

  1. Rosa says:

    Matt,
    Thank you so much for your reminder about breaks, when we see clients we forget about us, we only think about how we can help or where to send our client to obtain help.
    I closed my door in my office and did not see my computer for 10 minutes, stay in my chair but stretch my legs and arms, feel better. Thank you

  2. Rosa says:

    Matt,
    Thank you so much for your reminder about breaks, when we see clients we forget about us, we only think about how we can help or where to send our client to obtain help.
    I closed my door in my office and did not see my computer for 10 minutes, stay in my chair but stretch my legs and arms, feel better. Thank you

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    When the problem of overwork first came to my attention, I became sensitive to it and made adjustments–or sought to develop a healthy habit while still young. I avoid, usually, taking lunch at my desk. I view negatively working through lunch, and would tend to rebel against such an aspect of office culture. Plus, having lived in France for a number of years, I’ve adopted a different preference for the lunch hour: a longer one. Even if I take a short one, my attitude about the break is different. I’m aware of the problem and imagine rest. When writing, fatigue will signal the time to stop. Struggling against fatigue, then, is not worth it. Even though I sometimes prefer not to, I relent to waning energy. I do think about changing scenery and physical position. Music is a partner. I enjoy walking. Peace…

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    When the problem of overwork first came to my attention, I became sensitive to it and made adjustments–or sought to develop a healthy habit while still young. I avoid, usually, taking lunch at my desk. I view negatively working through lunch, and would tend to rebel against such an aspect of office culture. Plus, having lived in France for a number of years, I’ve adopted a different preference for the lunch hour: a longer one. Even if I take a short one, my attitude about the break is different. I’m aware of the problem and imagine rest. When writing, fatigue will signal the time to stop. Struggling against fatigue, then, is not worth it. Even though I sometimes prefer not to, I relent to waning energy. I do think about changing scenery and physical position. Music is a partner. I enjoy walking. Peace…

  5. Kathryn Calahan says:

    Every Saturday I observe a Sabbath. This is the day, I refuse to have any prior commitments. No schedule, no alarms going off, no one I have to see and nothing I have to do. Anything having to do with striving or achieving is off the table, I enjoy time recuperating from the extroverted activities of the week and if I am with people, it is with those who nourish my soul and generate a positive outlook on life and Faith. I find that when I set aside one day to rest….the rest of the week is always productive.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Great example Kathryn! Not only is it important to check out, connecting is spirit is also critical for so many of us.

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