Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Work breaks, well-being, and productivity

Work breaks, well-being, and productivity:
How do work breaks affect well-being and productivity?



Consider the following: Your alarm goes off at 6 am every morning and you rush out of bed for a quick shower. Breakfast is toast and instant coffee - all you have time for - eaten while checking your schedule for the day ahead. Realising you're already late, you rush out the door past a stack of half-read novels you haven't touched in 5 weeks for lack of spare time. The bus to work is crowded but that doesn't stop you from checking emails and sending messages to colleagues. The work day passes in a blur. Before you know it, 6 am has arrived again and you're rushing for the shower. Does this sound fimilar[spelling?]?

Figure 1. A group of men taking a break from work

Regardless of how hard someone works, the need for a break is inevitable. But in the the modern world, trying to find a balance between work and play can be an incredibly difficult challenge. With only 24 hours in a day, trying to juggle work, study, family and social life and even just a reasonable amount of "me time" is, for many people, impossible. This constant feeling of pressure to keep up with numerous life demands is common. Cross-cultural research by Hamermesh & Lee (2007) has found that adults all around the world are expressing concern about their lack of spare time - particularly in the middle and upper classes.

The effects of a lack of spare time and its potential end - burnout - are well noted (Ahola et al., 2017). But despite its negative outcomes in extreme cases, work is also essential to society's functioning. Therefore, this chapter addresses the question of how to find an appropriate balance between working and breaking, in order to maintain mental and physical well-being while retaining workplace productivity. The question, indeed, is a complex one.

This chapter outlines several of the driving theories behind why we all require a break and why we cannot work indefinitely. It then moves on to some of the kinds of breaks we often experience in our daily life and how we can use such breaks to optimism[spelling?] our productivity and well-being.

Focus questions:

  • Why do we need to take a break?
  • How can take a break[Rewrite to improve clarity]?
  • What is the relationship between work break well-being and productivity?

Why do we need a break?

  • We need breaks for our own health and well-being. Breaks can reduce our need for recovery after work and reduce stress. (Coffeng et al. 2015)

Conservation of resources theory


One of the leading models used to explain why we experience stress from work demands is the Conservation of Resources (CoR) Theory (Hobfoll, 1989). This model, proposed by Steven Hobfoll in the late 1980s, posits that each individual possesses a finite number of resources and that an actual or perceived threat to such resources results in stress. Hobfoll's definition of resources has been criticised for being too vague, and confounding resources with the outcomes of their use (Halbesleben et al., 2014). Hobfoll defines resources as "objects, personal characteristics, conditions or energies that are valued by the individual" (1989, p. 516):

  • Object resources are objects such as a house or car that are valued for their physical properties or association with socioeconomic status
  • Conditions are relational states, such as marriage or job stability, that affect stress resistance
  • Personal characteristics are individual attributes, such as optimism; and
  • Energies are resources such as time and money that are useless in themselves but can be used to obtain other resources.

In the context of work, continuous demands in the workplace result in both perceived and actual loss of the various resources described above (Kim, et al, 2016). Consequently, the resources possessed by each individual continue to deplete until the worker reaches complete physical and emotional exhaustion (see Burnout below). To counteract this inevitable end, CoR theory implies that workers must take frequent breaks from actual and perceived losses of resources (work demands) to replenish and add to the resources they already own (Hobfoll, 1989).

Resource drain and deviancy

Interestingly, CoR theory has been applied to understand deviant behavior in the workplace. Across four weeks Penney, et al (2011) surveyed 95 000 participants about their personality traits (particularly, conscientiousness and emotional stability) and, subsequently, the number of counterproductive workplace behaviors they engage in – such as time-wasting, deliberately arguing and ignoring emails. Results indicate that individuals low in emotional stability (a personality resource from CoR perspective) were more likely to engage in counterproductive workplace behavior than those higher in the trait.

Likewise, another study examined the effects of resource drain on hotel employees (Lee and Ok, 2014). They found that high levels of emotional drainage and burnout significantly predicted the likelihood of employees engaging in sabotage behavior at work. In summary, as far as CoR theory is concerned, counterproductive workplace behavior is the result of an employees[grammar?] need to reduce psychological strain and replenish their resources (Penney, et al 2011).  

Attention restoration theory


An alternate perspective on why we require frequent breaks from work is Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART) (1995). Similar to CoR theory, ART posits that individuals will require a break due to a drain of resources. However, ART focuses specifically on a single recourse, namely, voluntary attention. According to ART, individuals must allocate a certain amount of their finite attention to cognitively demanding tasks. As this resource is limited is quickly drained and a break is required to restore it (Kaplan, 1995).

ART does not explicitly concern itself with the exact mechanism of why a break is needed. Rather, it focuses on the best possible methods of restoring attention once it has been depleted. This discussion has primarily revolved around the link between attention restoration and exposure to nature. A systematic review by Stevenson et al., (2018) of 42 studies found that, overall, exposure to nature after experiencing a cognitive taxing exercise increased participant performance on working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. Interestingly, the effect was also seen with exposure to virtual nature – albeit to a lesser extent (Stevenson et al., 2018).

Despite these findings, the obvious limitation of ART is that the model is restricted to recovery from cognitive tasks. It can say nothing about why we might need a break from tasks that are physical, social, or relational.

Stress recovery theory


A slightly earlier model, which also emphasizes the importance of nature in the recover process from work demands, is Ulrich[grammar?] Stress Recovery Theory (1991). Perhaps the greatest advantage Ulrich model has over Kaplan’s ACT (1995) is that he suggest particular biological and cognitive pathways for why we experience stress in respond[grammar?] to life events. Such pathways include the activation of the parasympathetic nervous systems and changes in cognitive affect.

Ulrich argues that many of the stress raising events our cavemen ancestors needed on a daily basis are no longer relevant in the modern, urban world. However, as an evolutionary byproduct, the constant demands of the modern world cause the same activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to increased feeling of stress (Scott et al., 2021).

The logic in the stress reduction models is that if we are programmed to experience stress from threatening environmental stimuli, then non-threatening environments should calm us down. This model has been applied to hospital settings where it was found that participants recovering from surgery in a room with a view of nature experience far less stress that those without (Ulrich, 1984).

Summary of theories

Theory: Conservation of Resources (Hobfoll, 1989) Attention Restoration (Kaplan, 1995) Stress Recovery (Ulrich ,1991)
Focus: Apprasial[spelling?] and cognitive processes Cognitive processes (specifically, voluntary attention) Biological and emotional processes
Work demands result in: Stress Attention Decifit[spelling?] Stress
Breaks are required to: Acquire new resources and restore resources lost through work Reduce the attention deficit produced by cognitively demanding activates Recover from the stress we experience due to a bi-produce[say what?] in our evolutionary history.


Figure 2 Burnout consists of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment

By examining the story at the beginning of this chapter, it would be reasonable to conclude that the individual is on a path toward burnout. Burnout is a common experience of individuals under extreme work demands (Schaufeli et al., 1993). Schaufeli et al. (1993) define burnout as a combination of three distinct aspects:

[Use a wiki-style numbered list - see Tutorial 02]

1. Emotion exhaustion: depletion of one's emotional resource

2. Depersonalization: negative and detached response to other people

3. Reduced personal accomplishment: reduction in feelings of competence and success in one's work

Although early theories restricted burnout to a phenomenon experienced by healthcare providers (Schaufeli et al., 1993), subsequent research has found that burnout can affect anyone under prolonged stress (Ahola et al., 2017). Common health outcomes of burnout include an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, and depression (Ahola et al., 2017).

How do we break?


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What are micro-breaks?


When most of us hear the work 'break' the image that likely springs to our minds is something like a lunch break or weekend – time set aside specifically for the purpose of taking a break from work. However, if you consider your typical workday, you’ll notice that you spend much time between tasks engaged in activities that are not explicitly related to work. Such activities may include, drinking a cup of coffee, chatting to colleagues, reading a book/magazine, or eating a snack. Such activities can be broadly referred to as micro-breaks (Kim et al., 2016).

Micro-breaks can be defined as “short respite activities that are undertaken voluntarily on a need basis between series of task episodes” (Kim et al., 2016, p. 30) and the impact they have on well-being and workplace productivity and has been the subject of much research of the past few decades (Albulescu, et al ., 2022). This section examines the effect micro-breaks has on workplace productivity and wellbeing.

The effects of micro-breaks on well-being and productivity


While the [what?] literature provides overwhelming data to suggest that micro-breaks have a beneficial effect on the well-being and productivity of employees, research suggest that this effect is moderated by the type of activity engaged in during the micro-break (Kim et al., 2016). A South Korean study investigated how specific micro-breaking activities attenuate the stress relationship between work demands and negative affect (Kim, et al, 2016).

In their study, 86 office workers self-reported their daily work demands and their engagement in micro-break activities over 10 days. At the end of each day, the negative affective state was recorded using the Job-related Affective Well-being Scale (Van Katwyk et al, 2000). The specific micro-break activities recorded include relaxation (short walks, daydreaming), socialization (chatting, gossiping), nutritional intake (snacking, drinking) and cognitive activities (reading, planning).

In line with their hypothesis, both relaxation and socialization were found to have a beneficial effect on reducing end of day negative affect. Participants who used these forms of micro-breaking experienced significant reduction in negative work affect in both low and high work demand contexts. Surprisingly, nutritional intake only had a beneficial effect when it involved caffeinated beverages (tea/coffee), otherwise, no significant relationship was found. However, most interestingly, it was found that participants who engaged in cognitive activities during micro-breaking actually exacerbated the relationship between work demands and negative affect.

A recent meta-analysis by Albulescu, et al (2022) supports the Kim et al. (2016) findings. Aggregating the data from 22 studies from the past thirty years, Albulescu, et al (2022) found significant positive effects for micro-breaking on both workplace performance and well-being. In their meta-analysis, however, they placed less emphasis on the specific micro-breaking activity and focused more on the micro-break length, and the activity from which participants were breaking. By distinguishing between routine, creative and cognitive tasks, they found that micro-breaking only increases performance on tasks that required less cognitive effort, yet, micro-breaking increases well-being regardless of the task being performed. Albulescu, et al (2022) also highlighted that, generally, longer micro-breaks lead to increased performance and suggest, controversially, a standard micro-break time of 10 minutes to reap optimal benefits.

Context is everything

Only specific types of micro-breaks are beneficial for well-being. A well cited study by Fritz et al. (2011) found that many of the micro-breaking activities used by employees of a large consulting company were positively associated with fatigue and negatively associated with vitality. Such micro-break strategies included surfing the web and snacking. Although no causation was established, Fritz et al. (2011) argue that these strategies are likely to be used by employees who are already fatigued and use them as a distraction from work. On the other hand, they found that reflection on the meaning of one's work, expressing gratitude and helping a colleague positively correlated with vitality and lower levels of fatigue within the workplace.

Quiz Time!

1 Which of the following is the best example of a micro-break?

Taking two days off work to recover from stress
Sitting down and relaxing after a long day
Chatting to a colleague during a tea break
Having a 4 hour work day

2 Based on the above research, which of the following beverages should you consume during a micro-break to reduce negative workplace affect?

soft drink

Free time


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What is 'free' time?


If you were to ask someone to imagine their ideal life, a common response goes something along the lines of having all day to lie on the beach sipping pina Coladas – essentially having indefinite free time. All around the globe, people are reporting a chronic lack of spare time  and this ‘time famine’ has been strongly linked to depression, exhaustion, and poor physical health (Hamermesh & Lee, 2007). But despite how well-established the research on a lack of spare time may be, how much free time do we need? And how can we properly spend the little free time we have to maximize our productivity and well-being?

Free time – or ‘discretionary’ time as it often appears in the literature – is defined as time spent on leisurely activities purely because they are pleasurable or in some way intrinsically enjoyable (Sharif, et al 2021). It is not simply time outside of working hours where one finds themselves cooking dinner, doing laundry, washing up, etc. as these are activities that serve only as a means to an end. Common examples of discretionary time include watching movies, reading a book, or socializing with friends.


Although a lack of free time leads to negative outcomes, research suggests that too much free time can also have detrimental impacts on our well-being (Sharif, et al 2021). A recent study by Sharif, et al (2021), examined the responses from 13,639 employed Americans on the National Study of the Changing Workforce survey between 1992 to 2008. Two questions from the survey were of interest to the study, the first assessing how much discretionary time the participant engaged in each day, and the second assessing subjective well-being – measured by life satisfaction.

As predicted, results from their study found that limited discretionary time significantly predicted a lowered sense of life satisfaction. Sharif, et al (2021) suggest that this is likely attributed to the excessive stress that constant work places on an individual. However, more surprisingly, they also found that excessive hours of free time does not necessarily translate into greater life satisfaction. Participants with large amounts of discretionary time (more than 7 hours) reported a lowered sense of life satisfaction. Sharif, et al (2021) suggests that this may be explained by the participants experiencing a low feeling of productivity.

Are well-being and productivity related?

This suggestion – the link between well-being and productivity – alludes to the possibility that well-being and productivity are not as independent as one might assume. Indeed, many models of well-being do incorporate productivity into their framework. For example, positive psychology’s 5-factor ‘Flourish’ model of well-being includes Accomplishment - which demands a certain level of productivity (Seligman, 2011).

Individual personality factors must also be taken into consideration when linking free time, productivity and well-being. Research has found that individuals who score high on conscientiousness - the personality tendency to be diligent and hardworking – experience a greater drop in life satisfaction with extended periods of free time (i.e., following unemployment) than those lower on the trait (Boyce, et al 2010).

However, generally speaking, results from Sharif, et al (2021) indicate that between 2-5 hours of discretionary time per day correlates with the optimal subjective sense of well-being. With excessive work stress or a limited sense of productivity lowering life satisfaction on the more extreme ends of the spectrum[grammar?].

Figure 3. Bertrand Russell argued that the modern world was obsessed with productivity and instead we should spend more time on activities that were enjoyable in themselves
Implications of free time for the modern world

The research on free time and the impact a lack of it has on our well-being raises signification[spelling?] implications for the current western structure of work. Does it warrant restructuring the traditional 8-hour workday? As a possible solution, Philosopher Bertrand Russel[spelling?], as an early advocate of the 4-hour workday, argued that the modern work has become productivity obsessed and suggested that addition fee time would reap greater benefits to both ourselves and society (Russell, 1932). However, more research is required to determine if this alternative is feasible.

Quiz Time!

Based on the above research, which of the following graphs best represents the relationship between free time and well-being?




In the traditional western structure of work, the weekend is the time of the week most looked forward to . Helliwell & Wang (2013) have found that individuals experience less stress, anxiety, and anger - while simultaneously experiencing more laughter and happiness - during the weekend than throughout the weekday. Furthermore, longitudinal research by (Fritz et al., 2010) found that those who spend their weekend relaxing and mentally detaching from their work mindset experienced significantly less negative affect the following workweek.

However, the benefits of the weekend are not evenly distributed (Helliwell & Wang, 2013). Using over half a million entries to the Gallup/Healthways US daily poll data from 2008 to 2009, Helliwell & Wang (2013) calculated that the effects of the weekend on life satisfaction are twice as large for full-time workers than the rest of the population.

Interestingly, the benefits of the weekend were smaller among those who consider their supervisor to be a friend rather than a boss (Helliwell & Wang, 2013). - suggesting a relationship between positive workplace relationships and break time required from work.



This chapter provides compelling evidence that, in the appropriate context, work breaks provide positive benefits to our well-being and productivity. The two main forms of breaks discussed - micro-breaks and free time – were found to only be beneficial when they are in the appropriate form, in the case of the former, and are in the optimal range of time, in the case of the latter.

Several theories about why breaks are required were also presented. One should not make the mistake of thinking these theories are contradictory to each other. Rather, they are different perspectives on the same concept.[vague]

Burnout remains a major problem in the modem world (Ahola et al., 2017). This chapter has shown how we can all take steps in our daily lives to preserve our well-being, prevent burnout, and all the while still output a reasonable amount of productivity.

See also



Ahola, K., Toppinen-Tanner, S., & Seppänen, J. (2017). Interventions to alleviate burnout symptoms and to support return to work among employees with burnout: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Burnout Research, 4, 1-11.

Albulescu, P., Macsinga, I., Rusu, A., Sulea, C., Bodnaru, A., & Tulbure, B. (2022). "Give me a break!" A systematic review and meta-analysis on the efficacy of micro-breaks for increasing well-being and performance. PLOS ONE, 17(8), e0272460.

Boyce, C., Wood, A., & Brown, G. (2010). The dark side of conscientiousness: Conscientious people experience greater drops in life satisfaction following unemployment. Journal Of Research in Personality, 44(4), 535-539.

Fritz, C., Sonnentag, S., Spector, P., & McInroe, J. (2010). The weekend matters: Relationships between stress recovery and affective experiences. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 31(8), 1137-1162.

Fritz, C., Lam, C., & Spreitzer, G. (2011). It's the Little Things That Matter: An Examination of Knowledge Workers' Energy Management. Academy Of Management Perspectives, 25(3), 28-39.

Hamermesh, D., & Lee, J. (2007). Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?. Review Of Economics And Statistics, 89(2), 374-383.

Helliwell, J., & Wang, S. (2013). Weekends and Subjective Well-Being. Social Indicators Research, 116(2), 389-407. Hobfoll, S. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513-524.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kim, S., Park, Y., & Niu, Q. (2016). Micro-break activities at work to recover from daily work demands. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 38(1), 28-44.

Lee, J., & Ok, C. (2014). Understanding hotel employees’ service sabotage: Emotional labor perspective based on conservation of resources theory. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 36, 176-187. doi:

Meijman, T. F., & Mulder, G. (1998). Psychological aspects of workload. In: P. J. D. Drenth, H. Thierry & C. J. de Wolff (Eds.), Handbook of work and organizational psychology: Work psychology (pp. 5–33). Hove, England: Psychology Press.

Penney, L., Hunter, E., & Perry, S. (2011). Personality and counterproductive work behaviour: Using conservation of resources theory to narrow the profile of deviant employees. Journal Of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84(1), 58-77.

Russell, B., 1932. In Praise of Idleness. In: In Praise of Idleness. New York: Routledge

Schaufeli, W., Maslach, C., & Marek, T. (1993). Professional burnout: Recent Theory and Developments. Taylor & Francis.

Scott, E., McDonnell, A., LoTemplio, S., Uchino, B., & Strayer, D. (2021). Toward a unified model of stress recovery and cognitive restoration in nature. Parks Stewardship Forum, 37(1).

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. North Sydney, N.S.W.: Random House Australia

Sharif, M., Mogilner, C., & Hershfield, H. (2021). Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(4), 933-947.

Stevenson, M., Schilhab, T., & Bentsen, P. (2018). Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 21(4), 227-268.

Ulrich, R. (1984). View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420-421.

Ulrich, R., Simons, R., Losito, B., Fiorito, E., Miles, M., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201-230.

Van Katwyk, P., Fox, S., Spector, P., & Kelloway, E. (2000). Using the Job-Related Affective Well-Being Scale (JAWS) to investigate affective responses to work stressors. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(2), 219-230.