The Microstructure of Work: How Unexpected Breaks Let You Rest, but Not Lose Focus

by Pradeep Pendem, Paul Green, Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino

Overview — Work breaks are usually considered as a necessary evil—inevitable but nonproductive. This study shows that properly structured breaks maintaining employee attention can actually yield post-break improvements in performance.

Author Abstract

How best to structure the work day is an important operational question for organizations. A key structural consideration is the effective use of breaks from work. Breaks serve the critical purpose of allowing employees to recharge, but in the short term, translate to a loss of time that usually leads to reduced productivity. We evaluate the effects of two types of breaks (expected versus unexpected), and two distinct forms of unexpected breaks, and find that unexpected breaks can, under certain conditions, yield immediate post-break performance increases. We test our hypotheses using productivity data from 212 fruit harvesters collected over one harvesting season yielding nearly 250,000 truckloads of fruit harvested over the course of 9,832 shifts. We provide a conceptual laboratory replication of these findings, showing that unexpected breaks lead to increased performance when they allow people to maintain attention on the focal task. Our results suggest that the characteristics of a break can lead the break to be experienced as an interruption, with all consequent negative outcomes, or as a rejuvenating experience, with positive post-break consequences.

Paper Information