bracWe all know that we work better and feel less stressed if we take regular breaks during the working day. However, the stressed individual may feel uncomfortable and guilty about taking breaks, even when they admit that their usual driven work patterns are causing them stress (“but the work just won’t get done”). Research is beginning to establish a scientific basis for common-sense advice.

Our bodies have a Basic Rest and Activity Cycle, consisting of 90-120 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest. This cycle can easily be stretched or distorted, as when the individual works through the morning without taking a break, skips lunch, or works late. However, it has been found that people whose rest-activity cycle remains irregular for extended periods develop stress-related symptoms.

The rest-activity cycle involves alternate shifts in dominance from one side of the brain to another. When we move from activity to rest, the left side of the brain (associated with logic, sequence, details, analysis, calculation and language – “work mode”) gives up dominance to the right side (associated with patterns, intuition, and emotion – “relaxation mode”). While we can force ourselves to remain in work mode for long periods, the right side of the brain eventually reasserts itself, leading to a loss of concentration and increased tiredness and error rates.

It’s no accident that workplaces and schools traditionally built mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks into their schedule; employers and school authorities found that people work better and think more clearly with regular breaks.

Sometimes a client will say to me “This won’t work. I’ll just have to add the time on to the end of the day so I’m working even longer hours!” Actually, no you won’t. Just because you’re at your desk, it doesn’t mean you’re doing productive work at a constant rate. If you’re anything like me, you get far more done when you’re feeling good, and far less done (with more mistakes) when you’re tired.

By taking breaks in the middle of the morning and the middle of the afternoon, getting out of the workplace altogether at lunchtime, and leaving work at a reasonable time in the evening, you can improve the quality of your work and get more done in less time. So even if you aren’t prepared to do it for the sake of your own health and sanity, you can take breaks with a clear conscience – because your employer (or clients, or customers) will benefit as well!

What happens if you don’t take account of the needs of your mind-body system? Typically, if the ‘arousal response’ to stressful situations is prolonged over weeks or months (‘chronic stress’), excess amounts of stress hormones are produced and flood the system. It seems that the cells of the body begin to shut down and destroy their receptor sites for these hormones. When the receptors are below their normal levels the person will experience withdrawal – they miss the adrenalin high and the levels of arousal and performance that go with it. They will be tempted to over-work, or use stimulants (sugar, caffeine, nicotine or other drugs) to try to regain the high.

Overachievers can become locked into a vicious circle of ever-increasing levels of activity and stress hormones – until the mind-body system ‘crashes’ and develops physical symptoms. You can avoid this, and sustain health and high performance indefinitely, by being aware the needs of your mind-body system to take regular breaks.

For further reference:

Tony Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance – a must-read for managers

There’s also a great 15-minute interview with Tony Schwartz on the HBR Ideacast here:

Ernest Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing: New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis – a must-read for hypnotherapists.

Why you don’t need to feel guilty when you take a break

2 thoughts on “Why you don’t need to feel guilty when you take a break

  • Interesting article. However, is there any peer reviewed proof to this idea from serious medical or biology journals.

    All too often NLP and other methods propose models that don't stand to scrutiny and have a factual basis and this seems another instance.

  • Hi Neil,

    I don't think you can blame NLP for this one, as the Basic Rest and Activity Cycle isn't an NLP concept – rather, it comes from physiologist Nathaniel Kleitmann's research.

    Schwartz's Energy Project web site turns out to be disappointingly light on links back to research for something that's entirely built on the concept of 90-minute cycles. However, I did turn up enough research to establish that Kleitmann's 'Basic Rest and Activity Cycle' is a recognised and respectable concept:

    Also the 'first pages' segment if you look inside Ernest Rossi's book The Twenty-Minute' Break gives quite a few references.

    Not being an academic, I don't have access to all the research databases – however, the name of sleep researcher Peretz Lavie also crops up a lot if you want to pursue this.

    However, this isn't something that you need to wait for research evidence about – just try out taking breaks in your own life and see what happens!

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