Importance of breaks when working from home

If you’re working from home after spending months, or years, working in an office, you may find it hard to take breaks. Yet don’t get persuaded into thinking that working nonstop is the best approach for your physical and mental health.

Breaks may seem like a nuisance if you’re in the throes of a work task, but here are just some of the reasons why they’re so beneficial:

— You’ll return from your work break better focused. If you work too long without breaking, you tend to lose your focus, says Stephen Clark, a physical therapist and clinic director of Confluent Physical Therapy at Walmart Health in Newnan, Georgia.

— Because you’re more focused after a break, you’ll increase your productivity, Clark adds.

— You’re better able to solve problems when you periodically break and do something different, says Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh.

— By breaking regularly, you lower the chances of mental burnout.

[See: 10 Tips for Avoiding Work Burnout.]

Why People Don’t Take WFH Breaks

Breaking while working from home is not as intuitive as it might seem.

“When working from home, it can be a little hard to figure out what a break looks like,” says Dr. Christine M. Crawford, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s associate medical director and a practicing psychiatrist in Boston. “In an office, breaks can be going to the water bubbler or stepping out of your cubicle to chitchat with a coworker.” These give you a chance to step away from what you’re doing and come back a little more focused. Those chances aren’t naturally there when you work from home.

Many people working from home find it challenging to take breaks out of fear that they’re unproductive, Clark says.

They also may worry that they’ll get in trouble with managers if they’re unavailable.

There are other reasons why WFH breaks are challenging:

— You worry that you’ll fall behind.

— Because more meetings take place virtually, they tend to be scheduled more tightly, Williams Woolley says. This means there’s little to no downtime to walk to and from meeting rooms like there may be in an office.

— It’s hard to establish a daily structure that includes breaks.

— If you have kids, you may try to work and spend time with your kids. What ends up happening is you find yourself pulled in two different directions without giving quality time to your work or your children.

Another challenge when working from home is that your day may seem to have endless hours, Crawford says. You start your day with household duties, or other responsibilities, and then get a late work start. You end up working into the evening, and that can interfere with your sleep and make it hard to feel disconnected from work.

The end result? Crawford has seen more anxiety and depression in her patients who feel too connected to work. “They don’t have enough time to do what they need to do, and at the same time, they feel there is time and feel guilty that they aren’t managing their time effectively,” she says.

[READ: Tips for Being Active During Work.]

Best Breaks to Take When Working From Home

When working from home — and even if you’re working in an office or other setting — there are some best ways to take a break to recharge your mind and body. Here are the best types of breaks to take:

1. Get physical. If you have to sit a lot for your work, it’s super important to get up and move around during your breaks. Too much sitting time is associated with heart disease, diabetes and obesity, just to name a few dangerous health conditions. One easy way to get moving is with what Clark calls “exercise snacks.” These are just one-minute bouts of vigorous exercise done throughout the day. These exercises are a quick way to lower the effects of sedentary behavior on your health, he explains.

Some ways you can get moving:

— Jumping jacks.

— Speed walking.

— Squats.

— Stair climbing.

Of course, if you have the chance to move for more than a minute, you should. For instance, a brief walk outdoors gets blood pumping but also provides fresh air, natural sunlight and the chance to focus your eyes on something other than a screen, Williams Woolley says.

2. Stretch. One challenge in many jobs is that you stay in the same posture for a prolonged period of time. If you’re in an office job, this often means sitting hunched over, typing away on a computer. Prolonged bad and repetitive postures can lead to aches, pains and discomfort, Clark says.

Stretching, in addition to heart-pumping physical activity, is another great way to take a break. Stretching can help counteract those postures your body is forced to maintain for a long time. Here are some stretches suggested by Clark and Sparta, New Jersey-based registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, author of “2 Day Diabetes Diet.” Hold your stretches for 30 to 60 seconds.

Standing lunge stretch. Stand straight, and place one leg in front of your body. Bend the front leg while also keeping the heel of the back foot on the ground to open your hip flexors.

Back extension. While sitting down, place your hands together behind your head. At the same time, press your elbows back and slowly arch your head, neck, and upper back.

Seated hip opener. Sit tall in a chair. Bring your left foot up to rest on your right knee. Slowly lean forward and hold the stretch. Repeat on the other side.

Standing shoulder W-external rotation. For this one, you’ll need a resistance band. Begin by standing and holding the resistance band in your arms, with your arms by your sides. Bend your elbows up and slightly out, making a “W” with your arms. Hold and return to your original position.

3. Eat. This isn’t an excuse to munch away on all the cookies and chips you want. Instead, aim for a work-from-home snack that provides a natural, healthy pick-me-up. Palinski-Wade favors no-sugar-added dried prunes because they provide fiber. That will help curb hunger and keep your blood sugar steady. They also satisfy a craving for sweets. For a crunchy snack, try air-popped popcorn with diced prunes and nuts, she suggests.

4. Drink water. If you’re working intently, you probably aren’t paying attention to internal cues that indicate you’re thirsty. If you don’t drink enough water, you could become dehydrated, and that can lead to fatigue and trouble concentrating, Crawford says. Use your break time to drink up, and plan to add hydration throughout the day. If you don’t like plain water, flavor it up with lemon slices, cucumbers or other fruits or vegetables.

5. Have some fun online, with a caveat. Although experts are clearly in favor of breaks with movement, you can still use some breaks to go shop online, watch funny videos on social media or read enjoyable articles. In fact, these can bring you joy and remind you of the lighter side of life, Crawford says. The caveat?

Limit the amount of time you spend doing these tasks, as it’s easy to get sucked in for too long. If you want some device connection without screen time, listen to a podcast or music while you take your break.

[See: Tips to Manage Stress at Work.]

How Long Should Breaks Be When Working From Home?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to questions about the amount of time you should break and how often. Here are a few ways you can approach the timing issue with breaks:

— Aim for a five-minute break every 25 minutes. This follows the principle called the Pomodoro technique. After about three hours, take a 30-minute break (this may end up being your lunchtime).

— Take breaks that are at least 10 minutes. This gives you a decent amount of time to step away from your work task.

— A movement break of at least three minutes every 30 minutes or six minutes every hour can help counteract sitting’s negative effects.

Once you decide what amount of break time is right for you, include those breaks in your schedule. Set up your calendar so you get reminders to do your breaks. “Unless you schedule in breaks, they tend not to happen,” Palinski-Wade says. If needed, discuss your planned breaks with your manager.

Try to take your break away from your work area; think in advance about where you want to take your break and what you’ll do.

These WFH Breaks Aren’t So Great

There are some ways of taking breaks that are less effective for your mental and physical health:

— Organizing your email. “That’s not a break. That’s work,” Crawford says.

— Watching TV, especially if you think you’ll get lured into binge-watching or eating foods full of simple sugars or excess fats, Palinski-Wade says.

— Doing housework, but this one can be different for everyone, Crawford says. Some people feel like they’re just working more if they do laundry or unload the dishwasher. If so, these aren’t good break tasks for you. If you find house chores relaxing, then by all means, carry on with them during your break.

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