When was the last time you took a break? And we’re not talking about the “break” you think you had – the one which saw you busy 70 per cent of the time and glued to a screen the other 30 per cent – but a real break? After dating app Bumble recently gave its 700 person-strong global workforce a week’s break to switch off, focus on themselves and subsequently tackle widespread burnout, many of us nodded our heads with a resounding “yep, we could do with some of that”.
“So many people have met this prolonged period of uncertainty with either ruthless productivity or stubborn procrastination (often we oscillate between the two) – both can burn us out,” says Chance Marshall, founding partner and creative psychotherapist at Self Space, a mental health service offering different kinds of therapy. “Months of unsureness, death, grief, dislocation, role changes, blurred boundaries, homeschooling, moving home or job, loneliness and a consistent call to navigate change, both internally and externally, mean we’re not just burnt out from work, we’re burnt out from life.”
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Since the pandemic struck not only were our usual holidays abroad taken away (which meant many of us forwent annual leave entirely, continuing to keep on going whilst we awaited freedom), but working from home also means not knowing when to switch off. Plus how many people do you know who have ever actually taken a proper lunch break?
Being busy has also long been a badge of honour and it’s common that a hectic schedule is the seen as the ultimate sign of success. “We are addicted to being busy. When we complete tasks, our brain releases the pleasure hormone dopamine, which makes us feel good,” adds Marshall. “We can get hooked on this feeling. Because of the value [as a culture] that is placed on achievement and productivity, some of us are stuck with guilt if we feel like we’re doing nothing, while others keep busy as it feels like the only way to achieve success. And a lot of us make ourselves busy because we’re trying to avoid so-called negative emotions.”
Why is taking a break good for us?
Science shows that taking a short break is more beneficial than you might think, with a recent 2021 study by the National Institute of Health finding that it is rest which helps the brain learn new skills, with “wakeful rest playing just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill,” said Leonardo G Cohen MD, one of the scientists behind the study. “It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced.”
Meanwhile, breaks have also been shown to restore our motivation and focus (yes please), improve mental and physical health and increase both productivity and creativity, making the break an activity which we should all be prioritising. Not to mention that taking time away from the hustle and bustle of work and stress can lead to healthier eating, exercise and general wellbeing habits. Cue a happier life.
“Taking breaks is not something our culture rewards us for,” says Marshall. “It is up there with setting boundaries, having a proper sleep, knowing our limitations, being sober and saying no. We need to take a break for our mental health in order to mitigate the effects of chronic stress. There are two major types of stress: stress that’s beneficial and motivating – good stress – and that which causes overwhelm and leads to burnout, which is bad.”
While, he says, stress is an inevitable part of life and can be beneficial, chronic stress can lead to an inability to concentrate or complete tasks, an impacted immune system, headaches, irritability, changes in appetite and anxiety, to name a few. “With this kind of stress, sometimes we can’t see the wood from the trees; its impact is so present in our lives that we don’t notice it. Taking a break is proactive and preventative and says, ‘I value myself enough to stop.’ It helps us recharge, concentrate, tackle colds, sleep better, live more, work more productively and contribute to relationships in meaningful ways.”
In fact, a survey of nearly 4,000 Self Space users showed that 91 per cent felt tired often or always and a further 76 per cent feel guilty for not spending enough time with family, friends and themselves. A large 69 per cent find it hard to take regular breaks and subsequently 77 per cent would appreciate mandatory breaks set by work. We want to make more time for ourselves, but how?
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How to incorporate breaks into your life
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there are a number of different ways to take a break; whether it’s a lunchtime break, twenty minute power nap or a week-long holiday, it’s time to get off the hamster wheel and be savvy about incorporating rest into your routine. When it comes to more lengthy breaks, make sure you’re scheduling them in at decent intervals to ensure your body and mind are getting the rest they deserve. And for the day-to-day ones? Below, some tips.
- Communicate. Make your break times known to colleagues, so they understand when you will and won’t be at your desk. It will help ensure you stick to the time you’ve set aside for yourself.
- Set boundaries. “Ask yourself: am I doing all of this because I want or need to? Or am I doing it out of compulsion and fear?’” says Marshall, who says we can’t expect people to place value on our work if we don’t demonstrate that we value ourselves enough to hold uncomfortable boundaries. Define what is important to you, practice saying no and do what might not ordinarily be the “done” thing (i.e. taking a break during the day).
- Practice Niksen. A Dutch concept which means “do nothing”, Niksen comprises all manner of “purposeless” activities, such as staring out of the window or listening to music. Take five to 10 minute breaks in your day and head somewhere quiet or relaxing and let go of all distractions. “Take a big breath and pause – it’s like mindfulness but instead of zoning in, you’re zoning out,” says Marshall.
- Go outdoors. Since studies show that getting outdoors and moving are excellent for both our physical and mental wellbeing (not to mention our creative juices), why not take a 20-minute walk at various points in the day? Pay attention to your surroundings and abide by the principles of forest bathing by staying away from your phone.
- Take a nap. Work from home? Then try a 20-minute power nap to revive yourself during the day. Studies show that it can help reset your body and mind and boost energy levels, performance and mood.
- Do something you enjoy. Motivate yourself to take a break by scheduling in something you want to do that isn’t work. Call a friend, read a book or invest some time in making a really great lunch – whatever it is, make it your priority.
- Have a chat. If you are around people as you work, it’s no bad thing to have a quick chat. Research has found that “mini breaks” that constitute a few minutes away from your workload, nattering with friends, can help you feel recovered afterwards.