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Why breaks are so important at work

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Stress is widely believed to be a huge drain on our workplaces.  A Towers Watson survey recently found for instance that stress levels directly correlate with low levels of employee engagement.  Tiredness and stress have also been linked to a drop in self control, which has multiple side effects, including an increase in bullying and a drop in ethical behaviour.

A new paper from a team of Wharton academics suggests that stress may impact upon a variety of other things too.  The study looks at the role of marginal pains, or how lots of little stresses throughout the day can impact upon our self control, and importantly our ability to play by the rules.

The team looked specifically at health and safety in a hospital environment, and wanted to explore whether stressed employees would be less likely to maintain their hand hygiene than more relaxed colleagues.

They utilized a technology called Proventix, which allows the monitoring of who uses hand soap machines, and how often they do so.  Across over 4,000 employees in 37 hospitals there were over 14 million unique hand hygiene opportunities recorded.  The bad news is that the vast majority of employees failed to maintain hand hygiene in accordance to regulations.  What’s more, their compliance got worse as the day progressed.

“When we first plotted the raw data, we were surprised by the significant, strong decline we observed in hand hygiene over the course of a single shift,” the researchers say.

To test the role fatigue played in the results, the researchers next mapped the data alongside the work intensity of employees.  It transpired that the longer the shift, and the more intense the work undertaken within that shift, made it less likely that the employee would maintain their hand hygiene routine.

The interesting thing is that this drop in standards was observed remarkably quickly.  It didn’t require several hours of work to be undertaken for the drop to emerge at all.

“Most research on the length and intensity of work days has focused on the long-term impact of work demands on work engagement and job performance,” the team says. “We highlight the immediate costs of work demands that can accumulate within even a few hours of the start of a busy work day. Our findings are consistent with this notion that this constant switching of gears can wear out our self-regulatory muscles, leading us to focus more on primary tasks and devote less attention to secondary tasks.”

All of which is perhaps not that surprising.  I’ve written previously about how our ‘social loafing’ tends to rise when fatigue causes our self control to drop, so we tend to turn to social media to while away the time.  It is easy to imagine however how this may be a rather more serious issue in some professions, especially as many of those professions are renowned for encouraging long working hours.

The research concludes on a slightly brighter note however, and suggests that the mental fatigue that causes our self control to drop can be remedied by a walk or some other form of exercise that gives the person a break from work whilst also providing exercise induced blood circulation.

Of course, in cultures where long hours are revered, taking a break is not always an easy thing to do.  This research adds to the pantheon of reasons why it’s necessary however.

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