Short works breaks do not prevent mental fatigue or increase efficiency – study

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Stopping for tea breaks while at work does nothing to make people more efficient or prevent them from feeling tired, research suggests.

A study that simulated a seven-hour office-like day – including tasks testing attention, concentration, learning, and memory – showed that healthy men would still experience mental fatigue despite taking 10-minute breaks every 50 minutes.

Lead author Professor Marius Brazaitis, of Lithuanian Sports University’s Institute of Sport Science and Innovations, said: “Contrary to popular belief, our findings show that taking short breaks during the work day does not improve cognitive function or prevent fatigue.

For the study, the researchers examined the cognitive function, motivation, mood, and brain activity in 18 healthy men aged 23 to 29.

To test cognitive function, the scientists set the participants nine different tasks that involved attention, concentration, learning and memory.

The researchers simulated an office-like environment for a day where the men completed the tasks over a seven-hour period.

The participants were told to take a 10-minute break every 50 minutes.

Office Stock
Researchers simulated an office-like environment where participants were told to take a 10-minute break every 50 minutes (Anthony Devlin/PA)

When compared with a control day without work, the team found the tasks affected the participants’ ability to focus, impacting cognitive functions including attention, learning and visual recognition.

Even after a four-and-a-half-hour rest, the participants struggled to recover fully, they added.

Commenting on the research, Dr Colin Rigby, reader in enterprise at Keele Business School, who was not involved in the study, said: “The idea that tasks can be broken down to fit within a pattern of breaks becomes a work-related task in itself, thus compounding the work pressure.

“Many workers don’t take breaks that are already scheduled, they eat lunch at their desks and don’t take their full quota of holidays.

“Chopping and changing tasks with breaks can lead to task anxiety.

“By leaving a task when it is not complete, or at a natural stopping point to fulfil a break obligation, you are doing neither wholeheartedly but watching the clock.

“Also, interrupted flow means that time is taken from task time, as you are trying to remember where you were and pick up on the thought processes when you return from the break, making you less efficient.”

The findings were published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

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