Why Mental Breaks are Essential in the Evolving Workplace

Today’s workplace has evolved into a more fluid environment, thanks to technology that allows employees more flexibility to work where and when they want. Cloud technology and virtual private networks create a secure, open-24/7 office no matter where employees roam.

Mobile devices, too, create an invisible tether that anchors employees to their home office at all hours of the day. Add to those developments Americans’ strong work ethic, and you have a recipe for 24/7 anxiety, as ForbesAlan Kohll points out.

24/7 Workplaces Often Lead to Burnout

This chronic stress, Kohll says, leads to employee burnout. When that happens, the quality of their work suffers, as does their engagement—that passion for their job that turns them into brand advocates.

Even something so mundane as a lunch break can significantly increase employees’ likeliness to recommend their employer to others, said a study by Tork, an industrial paper supplier.

Yet according to that same study, 38% of the employees the researchers surveyed didn’t feel that their employer encouraged breaks. Even in today’s “woke” work environment, a surprising 20 percent of those employees believed that their bosses would think they’re slacking off, while 13 percent of them believed their fellow employees would judge them.

Challenges and Benefits of a Remote Workforce

Working remotely not only allows people to work from the comfort of their own home, but it also enables globally distributed teams to work together on projects. Remotely distributed teams, though, face challenges in project management, such as communication among team members and coordinating schedules among team members, all of which can become sources of stress.

As Harvard University’s Rebecca Bakken points out, “Communication can get muddled if teams never meet face to face; trust and collaboration suffer when workers are siloed…” However, the facts about remote workers’ advantages to an employer are hard to argue with, as Bakken shows.

  • Global expansion: Having remote teams allows companies to expand beyond their nation’s borders, a vital advantage in today’s global marketplace.
  • Rise in productivity: Secondly, research shows that working remotely increases concentration, leading to a rise in productivity and less attrition.
  • Fewer sick days: In addition, remote workers are less likely to take advantage of sick days since they don’t need to worry about spreading illnesses at the office.
  • Fewer operating costs: With fewer employees on-site, employers can save an average of $2,000 on every employee who works remotely. With a remote workforce, the office footprint can be smaller, saving money not only on leasing costs but also on maintenance.

Solving Challenges with Working Remotely

The chief challenge, then, is to manage virtual teams efficiently. Researchers Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield point out that one of the chief roadblocks to efficient management is a communication breakdown. Remote workers often are on the receiving end of office rumors. Alienation and a feeling of disconnectedness add to these negative aspects of remote work.

This challenge, says Bakken, requires management that sets clear, achievable goals. A “communicative culture,” too, combined with tools that allow information to flow freely. Building relationships across the miles, she says, strengthens the likelihood of collaboration and helps teams leverage the unique strengths of each member.

Management that updates teams regularly and fosters transparency goes a long way toward building trust and defusing gossip. Sensitivity to cultural differences, too, lessens the likelihood of miscommunication, as does fostering a collective sense of mission.

Encouraging employees to become acquainted with each other on a personal level through chat rooms, or “watercooler” threads on a company’s remote communication tools, too, build trust, defusing stress in the process. Just as in-office employees bond over casual chats at the watercooler and lunch, these remote mental breaks go a long way toward reducing on-the-job stress.

Finally, managers need to keep an eye out for signs of burnout among their remote teams. When an employee works long hours for days on end, demonstrates moody behavior, or sends in work well below their usual quality, it’s time for management to encourage a break in the action.

Most importantly, management needs to reward those employees who do take regular breaks. It will pay off handsomely in employee engagement, less attrition, and a workforce full of brand advocates.

Solving Challenges with Mobile Accessibility

A 2014 Gallup study showed that mobile accessibility outside the workplace can lead to higher levels of stress, particularly if they check work emails during non-working hours. These stress levels rise among those who work remotely seven hours per week or more.

That fact hasn’t changed over the last five years, according to wellness coach Elizabeth Scott. In fact, merely checking work emails while mobile has morphed into “constantly checking one’s phone.” With not only email but also productivity and collaboration apps easily available on employees’ mobile devices, stress levels rise, even causing insomnia in some people.

Mobile distractions, such as social media, often reduce productivity during working hours, causing employees to work longer hours to accomplish assigned tasks. Setting boundaries—even deleting these distractions (or at least notifications)—can help mobile workers accomplish more work in less time.

The tendency of mobile employees to be available 24/7, says Scott, often causes them to wake more frequently as work problems sit there on their nightstand, often blinking notifications if they don’t turn off their collaboration tools. After all, if Ipek in Istanbul arrives at her desk at 8:00 am with a game-changing idea to share with Nathan in New York, it’s going to be tough for Nathan to ignore that insight—even if it’s 1:00 a.m. in New York.

Mobile users must prioritize mental breaks that remove mobile device-borne distractions. If an employee feels it necessary to park their cell phone on the nightstand, turning it over so the screen doesn’t show might help reduce the likelihood of the 1:00 a.m. wake-up call.

Mental Breaks Are a Must for Productivity, Engagement

Famed ADHD specialist Edward Hallowell likens stressed-out employees to those who actually have ADHD. In his Harvard Business Review article, “Why Smart People Underperform,” he identifies that the same brain overload that occurs naturally in people with ADHD occurs in workers who flit from device to device, never becoming the master of technology but rather its slaves.

Part of that overload comes from the multitasking that plagues device-connected workers. A worker reads an email that asks her to call the overseas office immediately. As she dials, fingers shaking from the coffee she drank to shake off the exhausted feeling she has from the all-nighter she pulled the night before. As she waits for the call recipient to answer, she scans the other emails in the inbox, checking the company social media posts for complaints in yet another tab.

In all that flurry of activity, she forgets the meeting that popped up in her online calendar notifications only a half-hour earlier. This, says Hallowell, is a phenomenon that has grown over the years as screen time and multitasking become the norm.

In remote teams, there’s often nothing but screens to look after. There aren’t off-screen meeting rooms, watercoolers, or lunchrooms to head to when work challenges shift into overwhelm. Speed in accomplishing tasks, points out Hallowell, is an elusive goal that causes workers to turn to multitasking to get tasks done quickly, often to the detriment of quality. In some workers, it becomes an addiction.

Conversely, the urge to accomplish more in less time causes the human brain to go into fight-or-flight mode, says Hallowell. Is it any wonder why remote teams never turn off the devices, turn down the sheets, and get a good night’s rest?

Fight-or-flight, it turns out, isn’t so good for productivity. Productivity and creativity slide, causing a worker to go into panic mode all the more.

The answer, says Hallowell, is to create an environment in which productive thought thrives.

Connection with other people and with nature is essential to create such a positive environment. For remote workers, this environment might mean taking a long walk outside to the local café for lunch, leaving the device to fend for itself back at the desk. If a remote worker lives alone, caring for a pet might provide the mental break—and the connection—his brain needs so much.

Even online, collaboration with coworkers can bring a fresh perspective to a vexing problem. When that collaboration turns into a real human connection, it gives both collaborators a mental break from their solo tasks. That break, in turn, can lead to a breakthrough in productivity for both people.

Hallowell recommends that workers take breaks every four to six hours. Using breaks for real-life human interaction, exercise, healthy meals among the company of others, and enjoying the beauty of nature can enhance productivity, decision-making skills, and creativity among workers in all fields.

Meg Selig, a St. Louis-based counselor, agrees. She points out that during such breaks, the human brain “reviews and ingrains” the insights it has learned before the break. This “waking rest,” as Selig calls it, functions almost as well as sleep to boost productivity.

Managing Mental Breaks for Remote Teams

Those people who manage remote teams should encourage mental breaks for team members. One forward-thinking company vice-president who manages remote teams throughout the world posts photos of herself enjoying nature while on breaks. She encourages her teams to do the same, giving kudos to nature photos, pictures of pets and family members that workers post. The result? Close-knit, creative and productive teams whose interests break down silos, even though oceans separate them.

With adequate mental breaks scattered throughout the day, teams will find themselves more productive, happier, and committed to the company’s mission. Managers, too, will find their work becomes a source of joy and inspiration. When a company’s workplace evolution includes provisions for its employees’ mental health, productivity will soar—and so will its standing in its industry.

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