A staggering seventy million workdays are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year. On that basis, it is important to consider ways we can remain stress-free throughout our working day. For many of us, we have spent the last year staring at a screen, in a room, without any colleagues and with very little breaks. We squint, we strain and wonder why our shoulders feel stiff. Our brains are like any other machine and need a rest. Forgetting to take a break or giving our mind a chance to pause can lead to burnout and increased stress levels.
For many people, the traditional “one-hour” lunch break was the norm in a working environment. I contemplated whether people should just give themselves permission to eat when they are hungry or take a break when they need one? Why has it taken so long for us to figure this out? Our days have become long. Stress has been rising and we even forget to eat away from our desks. Pre Covid-19, studies published in The New York Times, found that that 62% of professionals would typically eat lunch at their desks (also known as desktop dining).
Since March 2020, we have been running on Zoom and Teams calls which had led to virtual fatigue. Hours of staring at screens and never-ending emails has become a built-in feature of the pandemic. New research has revealed how the shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones has taken its toll, particularly amongst women. Overall, one in seven women* (13.8%) compared with one in 20 men (5.5%) reported feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after Zoom calls. Researchers found what contributed most to the feeling of exhaustion among women was an increase in what social psychologists describe as “self-focused attention” triggered by the self-view in video conferencing. But science doesn’t back up the belief that running yourself into the ground is good business. In fact, latest research is a stark reminder to us all that we need to learn how to pause, recharge and reset. It may sound simple but micro breaks could be the way forward.
Microsoft researchers monitored the brain activity of study participants and found that virtual fatigue begins to set in roughly thirty minutes into a meeting. Taking breaks between meetings, they discovered, stops cumulative stress from building up, giving our brains a chance to “reset.” In back-to-back meetings for two hours, subjects’ brains showed a steady increase of beta waves, which are connected to stress. But when participants took a break between meetings, the beta activity decreased. Even more fascinating, the beta waves remained low even when followed by four additional consecutive virtual meetings. Researchers also found that back-to-back virtual meetings weaken our focus and engagement, but when participants took breaks to reset, engagement held steady. When participants took even short breaks in between, commonly known as micro breaks, beta waves dropped and didn’t spike as much at the beginning of the next meeting. As the report sums it up: “The antidote to meeting fatigue is simple: taking short breaks.”
You may also have heard of the 20/20 formula which some say can help maximize your chances of having a productive day, every day. The 20/20/20 rule divides your first hour of the day into three equal blocks of exercise, reflection, and learning. Exercising for 20 minutes will get your blood flowing and ideally, get you into a light sweat. Sweating decreases cortisol, a hormone related to stress and fear. It also releases BDNF, which helps create new neural pathways faster and repairs brain cells.
Then, incorporate 20 minutes of reflection into your day. You can use this time to meditate, visualise your goals for the day or perhaps write down ideas or inspiring thoughts. Quiet in the morning makes for patience later in the day. Lastly, bring 20 minutes of real learning into your day. This is your opportunity to pick up that book you have been meaning to read.
Could these short, micro breaks really make us more productive? Many experts seem to think so. In fact, there are rumours that Microsoft might be developing new features that automatically reduce meetings by five minutes, which can be done individually or collectively for a team or an entire organisation. This way, allowing time for breaks to become part of the way we structure our time. For example, try reducing your meeting time from 30 minutes to 20 or 25 minutes could leave you a moment to pause and reset before your next meeting. While focus is important during the workday, too long spent in a focused state can start to backfire. Our mind naturally wanders when our energy levels reduce.
Here are 3 Easy Ways to Pause and Reset in 5 Minutes
Take a moment to notice how your body feels. Use that moment to stretch your arms up and wide in a circular motion, like a half moon. Repeat five times, slowly. Focus on using that motion to slowly release muscle tension throughout body from your head to your toes.
Take slow, deep breaths, using the guide to the right. Feel the lungs fill with air, soften the abdomen as you deepen the breath HOLD for 3 seconds then gently exhale.
3. Mindful Pause
Simply pause. Ideally move to an outside space (without your mobile phone_. Just take a moment to engage in a minute of interrupted pause and re-engage with presence.
In summary, micro breaks will be a small, worthwhile interruption for your long-term gain. A switch in focus to ease your body and reboot your brain can make your day feel more productive. Trust me, I’ve tried it – it works! Switching your routine is never easy, but why not try it for 30 days and see how you feel? Experts often say that it takes around 30 – 60 days to develop a new habit. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl says “breaking a habit really means establishing a new habit, a new pre-potent response. The old habit or pattern of responding is still there, (a pattern of neuron responses in the brain), but it is less dominant (less potent).” Even just a few minutes can give powerful results. Overall, I hope you will soon start to steadily build in these mindful habits into your day and start to reap the benefits of a greater wellbeing.