How 'Microbreaks' Can Improve Your Workday—And Help Prevent Burnout

Go ahead, give yourself permission to slack for a moment—it will be beneficial to your health.


Fast Facts

  • Taking short, informal breaks throughout the day while you’re working can be good for your health, a new study found. 
  • Experts say that taking small breaks helps you keep up your energy over time, avoid poor physical health, and reset attention and focus. 
  • Microbreaks can look different for everyone, but in general, the best breaks are those that have nothing to do with work, such as going on a walk or stretching.

Most of us require breaks during the workday in order to remain focused and maintain the energy needed to reach day's end. Now, a new study confirms that so-called "microbreaks" are in fact important for your overall health and ability to feel good throughout the duration of your workday.

The study, published in PLOS One, says taking short breaks helps workers have more energy and less fatigue. But that's not all. The study also found that not all breaks are created equal. Rather, when people engage in the right kind of microbreaks, they generally feel better.

"Overall, the data support the role of microbreaks for well-being," the researchers wrote. "While for performance, recovering from highly depleting tasks may need more than 10-minute breaks."

Basically, microbreaks can do your health good when they're sprinkled throughout your workday and longer breaks may be even better if you're engaged in particularly draining tasks at work.

"The automation and digitization of work that we all live, the permanent connection to information, any time and from any place, have changed the way we relate to work and put a lot of pressure on employees," study co-author Irina Macsinga, PhD., an associate professor of psychology at Romania's West University of Timișoara, told Health. "One aspect, however, remains constant: We all seek to feel full of energy and to perform well at work."

Macsinga said her research aimed to figure out what, exactly, would help lead to that. Here's a closer look.

What Are 'Microbreaks' and Why Are They Good for You?

Breaks of up to 10 minutes are considered microbreaks. As Macsinga explained they are breaks "that people take on a voluntary basis, when they feel they need it, in order to replenish their energy." Microbreaks are also "informal, unscheduled, and non-structured," she added. In other words, you call the shots surrounding when these breaks take place and do pretty much whatever you want to do during them.

The study, which included analyzing data from 22 separate studies conducted over the past 30 years, didn't specifically explore why microbreaks are good for you—but just found that they're beneficial.

"Microbreaks are indeed efficient in preserving high levels of vigor—to be vigorous means to experience higher levels of vitality and enthusiasm, to feel active and energetic," Macsinga said. Employees who are vigorous are also more willing to put the time and effort into something they need to accomplish—even when things get tough, Macsinga added.

Microbreaks are important for both your mind and your body, Lily Brown, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, told Health.

"Powering through leaves us prone to poor physical health—because of not adequately attending to our bodily needs or spending time hunched over—and emotional health, because of not giving our brains time to adjust to changing demands, or not giving ourselves time to process difficult news or frustrating interactions," Brown said.

What's more, your brain just isn't designed to keep working hard at the same task for longer periods of time, licensed clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, PsyD, told Health. "While taking part in mundane and routine tasks, our minds tend to wander, making it challenging to remain present-focused," Zuckerman said. "Microbreaks are an excellent way to reset our attention to the task at hand and redirect ourselves to the present."

What Type of Activity Constitutes a 'Microbreak'?

There's a lot of leeway surrounding what you do during microbreaks, but some of the biggest factors for getting the most out of your microbreak are that they need to be unstructured and on your terms. That can mean doing stretching exercises, getting outside for some fresh air, or screwing around on your phone, Macsinga said.

The research found that taking breaks that weren't related to your job had the most impact. That could mean taking a quick walk if you tend to sit on your butt during your workday or watching a short video on your phone. What's not helpful is taking microbreaks that are still related to work, like checking your work email or getting up to talk to a co-worker about a project you're both working on.

But beyond you calling the shots and doing breaks that are unrelated to work, it's hard to say if one activity is better than another with microbreaks. "Overall, taking short breaks seems to help, but if there are particular activities more useful than others is a question still in need for an answer in our future research," Macsinga said.

Who Benefits From 'Microbreaks'?

The study didn't explore exactly which type of workers benefit most from microbreaks. Still, "it would be safe to assume that, at a minimum, these breaks don't hurt unless someone has a hard time with the discipline to get back into work after the short break," Brown said.

As a result, microbreaks very likely help most of us, Brown added. But, if you find that you'll go down a rabbit hole of Instagram scrolling if you hop on your phone during your workday, you may need to find a different kind of microbreak activity.

Galligher agrees. "Microbreaks can be helpful regardless of vocation," she said. "Everyone needs and deserves to take breaks throughout the workday."

Finally, there's no data on how often you need to take microbreaks to benefit from them, but Macsinga said it's simply a good idea to take a break when you feel like you need it.

"There is no universal formula, but it is necessary to pay attention to our own body and its needs," Macsinga said. "In time, we will learn what the pattern is and we will act according to it."

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