In April this year, the Coronavirus pandemic forced the number of people working from home to soar to a staggering 49.2%. This sudden shift naturally meant that many people new to home working, had to work in an entirely different way, with little or no guidance on how to best do this.
Now, anyone who has ever worked from home before will know, one of the biggest challenges is creating and maintaining a daily structure, whilst managing your time effectively- which is no easy feat. A big part of this is remembering to take breaks at the right time to refresh your mind, reduce mental and physical fatigue and improve productivity.
Whilst working in the home, this doesn’t always happen as easily. For example, when we work in the company office, the environment and people within it will prompt us to take breaks. Whether it’s the coffee you are offered by a colleague, the chat you have at the water cooler, or when you realise it’s lunch time by the smell of food wafting across the room. And, when we leave at the end of the day, this is a clear sign that work is complete until tomorrow.
Ordinarily, if working from home, a partner or children coming home would be an indicator that the working day was done, however, home working in the current condition, means the line is not as defined. These signposts aren’t present in the home, therefore understanding and remembering to enforce structure into your day isn’t as straightforward.
As well as losing our daily structure, working from home can also lead us to neglect the small, but essential moments where your brain briefly resets, also known as microbreaks.
What is a microbreak and how do they help us?
A microbreak is essentially a small but frequent break in activity, that can enhance your focus and concentration, raise productivity, reduce stress, enhance wellbeing- and also combat the physical issues that occur with sedentary behaviour.
The parameters of what constitutes a microbreak are flexible, but they are generally a very short stoppage (usually under two minutes), that give a worker a brief burst of relief from whatever task they are doing. This can be a break you take to open a window for some air, or the moment you briefly move, stand or stretch. These breaks can be as little and as regular as 10 seconds every 10 minutes. The fleeting moments will allow you to simply relax your mind and body or look away from your screen to change your focus, or your posture.
The 53/17 rule – where a worker works without distraction for 53 minutes then has a 17-minute break- has also been proven to generate great results. It has been shown to improve focus and productivity through shorter periods of concentrated work. A decent timer app is all you need, and the 17-minute gaps can be used to exercise, mediate, find time for the gym and catch up with friends or colleagues.
Although- it’s not just stretching, exercise or conversation that creates positive microbreaks. A social scientist in the USA, studied the power of the short break and even found that putting aside a tiny moment in your day to watch a funny (but short) YouTube clip, could decrease fatigue, invigorate workers and increase their levels of concentration.
Microbreaks during lockdown
Whilst the importance of microbreaks is becoming widely recognised- the lockdown has impacted the small breaks we would ordinarily take without realising. It was recently discovered in a study by Wildgoose, that microbreaks have decreased for 95% of employees working from home, due to lockdown increasing the time we work at home at a desk or stare into a screen without interruption.
The report also claimed that 47% of the population are not taking the health and safety recommended break from the desk every hour and 50% are failing to take breaks for physical activity or stretching.
Being in lockdown has reduced the regular water cooler moments, incidental interactions with people across desks, and walking across the room to speak with colleagues and so on, therefore those microbreaks that we aren’t even conscious that we are taking, have been removed, and as a result we need to make an effort to replace them.
Remembering to stop!
Remembering to take these regular moments of respite can be a challenge- especially when we are working alone from home. Luckily, there are a number of ways to remember to incorporate microbreaks into your day.
For example, there are numerous apps and software products that interrupt your computer screen to remind you to stand up and that it is time to stretch or take a tiny breather. Alternatively, you could simply set up a regular alarm on your phone that reminds you to stand, stretch, move around, or make a drink. Many people follow the 20/20/20 rule to avoid eye strain, where they are prompted to look away from their screen every 20 minutes, at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds, although you could set an alarm to remind you to also watch your latest funny clip, or briefly listen to the news.
Apple watches and FitBits can be set to remind you to move after a certain amount of time, or if they sense periods of sedentary behaviour. Another popular method of reminder is drinking water. There are many phone apps are designed to remind you to regularly hydrate. Not only does this mean you must move to fill up your glass, but you are also likely to take those small toilet breaks regularly after increasing your fluid intake!
In general- as well as taking those regular 10 second stretch breaks- we should aim to take at least 1 minute of stimulation, activity or movement for every 30 mins of being still and whilst it appears many of us are likely to continue to work from home- it may be time to make a conscious effort and set those reminders, not to miss out on the microbreaks we need and deserve.