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Give your brain a break: So-called ‘microbreaks’ good if kept in check, experts say

Experts say occasional short breaks while working can improve productivity. Illustration by Troy Becker

Fargo - Texting with a friend, playing a quick game of Candy Crush or checking Facebook. Many employers see personal smartphones as a temptation and distraction in the workplace

New research conducted by a doctoral student at Kansas State University, however, suggests allowing employees to take smartphone microbreaks may actually boost productivity.

Student Sooyeol Kim installed an app on the smartphones of 72 full-time employees to track their usage during work hours. At the end of each day, participants were asked to record their perceived emotional state.

Kim found those who took phone breaks reported feeling happier than those who did not. He also discovered that employees spent only an average of 22 minutes using their smartphones during an eight-hour workday.

What is a microbreak?

Kim defined a microbreak as a nonwork-related activity during work hours. His study specifically focused on smartphone usage, but a microbreak can include other activities such as visiting with co-workers or grabbing a cup of coffee.

Heather Ostrowski, a performance consultant with Dale Carnegie Business Group of North Dakota, said she believed the term microbreak originally applied to stretches and activities designed to prevent fatigue and boost concentration.

She said that for her team, a microbreak still means getting up from the desk, walking around, and closing your eyes for a brief moment.

Regardless, she said what rejuvenates different employees can vary.

Those who did not grow up with smartphones may find it hard to believe their usage is an effective way to rest from work, but Ostrowski said it really depends on what works for the individual.

Many people today have a dependence on technology and feel a strong need to stay connected. Those employees who are given the freedom to take smartphone microbreaks and to use them how they want likely would be more engaged and productive, Ostrowski said.

Managing smartphone use

Kim cautioned that excessive smartphone use would obviously hurt work performance. He suggested one- to two-minute microbreaks scattered throughout the day.

Employers may worry about managing employees’ smartphone use, but Ostrowski said it comes down to trusting employees.

“People know what they need to get done,” Ostrowski said. “They’ll hold themselves accountable, I think, if they are truly engaged. Engagement is going to come from that trust and mutual respect.”

She suggested having a conversation with employees who spend too much time on their phones. She said there is a process for doing so without pointedly saying, “You’re spending too much time on personal calls.”

She recommends asking the employee if there are issues disrupting his or her workday that can be helped. That approach makes them take ownership of how they are spending their time.

Time to refocus

The time it takes to re-focus after a work interruption can vary greatly from person to person.

London software firm polled 1,140 of its employees about their smartphone usage.

A third of those polled said it takes 20 minutes to refocus after being distracted by a text message, email or Facebook post.

Ostrowski said it is recommended in her office that employees turn off their pop-up work email because of this.

She said when you stop to read a new email you are operating on someone else’s agenda and time frame. You lose focus on your own work.

Dale Carnegie employees like herself are encouraged to only check email every hour or so.

Similarly, the key to managing smartphone distractions may be to block out time for microbreaks. Keep smartphones in a purse or desk drawer until the allotted time.