Taking a break from work is good for you

Restorative activities such as phoning your children or partner and going to lunch with friends let your brain recharge and increase productivity.
(Ariel Skelley / Getty Images/Blend Images)

It’s the holidays and many of us are overwhelmed juggling work, family schedules and end-of-the year pressures. We work longer hours trying to accomplish more, and yet the piles don’t seem to disappear no matter how much we work. So we start earlier and stay up later, hoping that throwing more time into our work will enable us to get it all done.

Yet many researchers show us that this isn’t the most productive way to work, and in fact we may be less productive by pushing ourselves to work day and night with no breaks in sight.

Taking breaks during work actually increases productivity because it refuels us. It enables our brains to recharge, even if we break for just 60 seconds. Pushing ourselves with no time off taxes our brains, making it harder for us to stay on task or remain attentive to what we are doing. Despite what we may think, we don’t have endless cognitive resources.


It is especially important to take breaks if you are being paid to be creative and innovative. Our brains need to be rested to come up with new ideas. Forcing yourself to stay focused on the task at hand for hours upon hours puts a lot of stress on your brains to maintain this self-control. In addition, breaks help you reevaluate goals to make sure you are accomplishing the right things or in the right ways.

How can you rejuvenate? Take short breaks at work by leaving your desk to get up and take a walk or have lunch with friends, or take longer breaks in which you might take a hike, unplug from technology or take a power nap. It doesn’t mean simply trading one work-related task for another because this does not relax your brains.

Instead, substitute restorative activities such as listening to music, enjoying nature, meditating, engaging in social interactions, daydreaming, phoning your children or partner, reading a fun book, drawing or doodling, or going to lunch with friends or colleagues.

I remember consulting at a firm where many of the executives brought novels and read during lunch. They told me that it relaxed them and gave them a chance to briefly escape the stresses of the job. They also said they came back to their work ready to focus.

Try to step away from work about every 90 minutes or so. Set a time if that helps. By adopting a routine, you push yourself to be more productive and focused. If you don’t want to start with that many breaks, then at least plan on two 15-minute breaks a day. Not as optimal as a break every 90 minutes, but better than no breaks at all.

A lunch break is one important time in which it would be in your best interest to get up and leave your desk, either by exercising, enjoying lunch with friends or engaging in a hobby. Doing something that is fun and makes you feel good about yourself is key. Staying at your desk while eating lunch does not help in the renewal of your brain.


Just like getting enough sleep is essential to good health, so is taking a break. Your physical therapist will agree because many of us hold a lot of stress inside and experience neck and shoulder pain. Taking more frequent breaks and stretching will help alleviate these pains.

Time to practice what I preach — I’m off to take a stretch break.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She writes a weekly Career Coach column for the Washington Post. She can be reached at