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Jennifer Newman: How to get the most out of your work breaks

Skipping your breaks can lead to physical problems, irritability and job dissatisfaction, according to new research.

Taking a break at work has many benefits, but it also matters how you spend that break, says new research

Make sure you're a good fit with prospective employers when you're hunting for a job — it'll keep you happy in the long run, says Jennifer Newman. (Getty Images/Maskot)

Do you not take enough breaks at work, or not take a break at all?

New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests what many have already known, but don't always follow: breaks are crucial to one's well-being and job satisfaction.

But the study also points out that when and how a worker takes breaks is just as important.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to describe the research and explain how to take a proper break, and why it is so crucial to do so.

Rick Cluff: What is a work break and why is it so important?

Jennifer Newman:  It's taking time in your shift to take your attention away from work-related tasks, and completely away from them, so there's no requirement at all to work during that period. It's not a break if you are having a coffee with your boss while talking about how to handle a project that's getting bogging down.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

A break should help prevent physical problems. It can reduce muscle soreness, headaches, and eye strain. It shields workers from physical and emotional exhaustion, and it can also increase your job satisfaction.

A break can also help what is known as organizational citizenship behaviour. This is anything from assisting other people, to being to being enthusiastic in your job. It's voluntary and not part of your job description. If you're taking breaks, you'll have more of those civic-mindedness moments in your day.

Why do some employees not take breaks?

Some people feel too busy — they believe they can't stop or they will fall behind. Some people don't take them because they think it's going to hurt their career, they think, "Oh my boss is going to see my out there taking my break and that's not going to look good."

The other group that doesn't take breaks sometimes are new workers, because they feel like they don't need them. They just have this wellspring of energy. But it is really important to take breaks, and it's hard not to think that you shouldn't, but really you should take them.

And bringing your lunch in and eating at your desk while you're working is not a break either?

No, if you're working, that's not a break.

On the other hand, there are those who abuse their breaks.

That's right, you'll see people who are overwhelmed or burnt-out may take longer breaks than provided. Staff with trouble at home, or in their personal lives, may try to get more time to phone someone and deal with a matter outside of work, for example.

There are occasions where people are being dishonest. They know their supervisor isn't watching, and they'll take advantage of the lack of management. For example there was a worker who was taking advantage and took longer and longer breaks. His co-workers noticed, and got fed-up after a while. They went to a supervisor, and said it wasn't fair to them either, and asked the supervisor to do something about it.

So, what can workers do to maximize their break time, without getting into trouble with their boss?

You don't want to maximize your break time by extending it, that's definitely not a good policy. The research shows that the best breaks involve doing an activity you like. Choose something that will reenergize you.

Also, having your breaks earlier in your shift is good too. The research shows that breaks taken later in the shift are less effective. But, I want to emphasize that doesn't mean you shouldn't take them, just because they're less energizing. It means when you take your afternoon break, make sure you are doing something you really want to do.

Running an errand is not a break in the sense of what the researchers are trying to get us to do here. But, a walk outdoors may be helpful in the afternoon. Or doing something that you like to do on your own, that makes you happy.

Frequent, short breaks throughout the day do re-energize people in their shifts, according to the research.

What if your breaks are at mandatory times and you can't take short, frequent ones?

That's very common, and different workplaces have different ideas about what makes a good break. It's also dependent on the kind of work you do.

If staff can decide when they need a break, that's ideal. If that's not possible, you want to make sure that when you do take your break at the given time, spend it doing something you enjoy.

For example, one worker was starting to feel burnt out, and when she took breaks with her colleagues they discussed their problems at work, and home, and were quite negative. So she just decided to take her breaks by herself, and listen to music on her iPod.

What about workers who say they won't take lunch so they can leave early. Is that healthy?

Well that's pretty common actually, but having down time after work is really important to recovery the research shows.

But again, the need for breaks during your shift is an important thing. So in a flexible work environment you're going to have to weigh up how you're doing, so you'll have to be much more self-responsible in the sense of knowing how you're feeling on any given day. You may want to extend your day and take breaks during the day on the days that you're feeling like you need to have more rest.

If you're starting to feel irritable or you're starting to feel really sore, or you're starting to not like your job as much, those are signs or symptoms that maybe skipping lunch to get out early is starting to have a reduction in benefits. So you're wanting to make sure you're doing something you enjoy when you do take a break.

Some days you're maybe not going to leave early, because you did take that break in the afternoon.

This interview was condensed and edited. 

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Skipping your break is a bad idea, says workplace psychologist