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WFH fatigue, stress? Try ‘micro breaks’

05:35pm August 10 2021

Sally Kirkright says fatigue generally has an emotional impact, such as frustration and conflict. (Supplied) 

While there are many benefits from working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace wellness experts says they’re seeing an increased incidence of burnout, stress and fatigue.

“Studies have found that those who are working from home during the pandemic are working longer hours, often with their children in the background and a need to do home schooling,” says psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Dan Auerbach at Associated Employee Assistance Providers, which has seen an increased uptake in counselling services.

“Frequent Zoom calls without a break in between also cause fatigue.” 

But according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, one way to lessen fatigue is by taking regular “microbreaks” – short, voluntary, and impromptu respites in the work day. 

It could be as little as 30 seconds or a few minutes. 

The researchers found microbreaks help people recover from their morning fatigue and engage with their work better throughout the day. Workers in the study tended to take extra microbreaks on days when they were already tired when they turned up at the office, and that this had a beneficial effect on their energy levels and engagement.

Employees whose managers actively encouraged them to take the breaks were more likely to do so, and performed better as a result, the study found.

“Basically, microbreaks help you manage your energy resources over the course of the day—and that’s particularly beneficial on days when you’re fatigued,” says one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, Sophia Cho.

In the office environment, microbreaks tend to occur incidentally. 

Dan Auerbach says people need to know their attention span and not push beyond it. (Supplied)

At home under lockdown, there are no coffee runs in pairs, trips to the printer or colleagues dropping by for a quick update. The days at home can feel monotonous and long, with blurred boundaries delineating the start and end of the work day.

“The challenge we are facing at the moment is cognitive fatigue,” says Sally Kirkright, CEO of AccessEAP (Employee Assistance Program) in Sydney. “When we get fatigued there's generally an emotional impact, and some of the emotions that we're seeing is lots of frustration, and in particular conflict, both among colleagues and family members.”

Kirkright, who previously worked at Westpac, has a post-it on her computer reminding her to stretch, and when she makes a coffee, she avoids talking on the phone at the same time, which allows her mind to recharge. And she mixes up some of her phone meetings by putting headphones in and walking throughout the call.

“You need to take adequate breaks to restore your hormonal and chemical balances. If you're not doing that, it will exacerbate your stress levels and your brain becomes exhausted,” she explains.

If you have been looking at the same sentence on your screen for a while, it's probably a sign that you've mentally checked out.

“You need to know your own attention span and not push through beyond it,” says Auerbach, adding that most people can last between 45-90 minutes before they lose focus. “Your mind is going to take a break whether you allow it to or not, just by being less attentive. So you may as well build them in and get the benefits.”

As a rule of thumb, he recommends setting up a reminder to take a microbreak every hour and then checking your energy levels at the end of the day. 

Spend a microbreak doing anything that allows your mind to switch gears – it could involve a physical activity like stretching, but it doesn’t have to. Even looking out the window or checking Instagram counts as a microbreak. 

Don’t feel guilty about momentarily stopping work.

“Give yourself permission to take short breaks: ultimately it is a way of being more productive,” says Auerbach.

The views expressed are those of the author and people interviewed, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.


Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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