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New research shows the best time to take a break at work isn’t mid-afternoon, but mid-morning.
New research shows the best time to take a break at work isn’t mid-afternoon, but mid-morning.Handout

Don’t wait so long to take a break at work. In fact, if it’s around 10 a.m., step away from the desk

That’s the key finding from new research, that shows a mid-afternoon break is actually too late and not very beneficial, and instead a mid-morning break is far more likely to lead to a productive day.

A pair of Baylor University researchers, in a new study titled “Give Me a Better Break: Choosing Workday Break Activities to Maximize Resource Recovery,” found a number of things that seem counter-intuitive to what we’ve long believed true about the workday. The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu, both Ph.Ds and associate professors of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, surveyed 95 employees between the ages of ages 22 and 67 over a five-day workweek. Each person was told to document all breaks they took, with a break defined as “any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email or socializing with coworkers, not including bathroom breaks.”

With that data, Hunter and Wu were left with 959 break surveys, roughly two per person per day.

And the key finding?

Take a break mid-morning, because a break earlier quickly restores concentration, energy and motivation, whereas if workers waited till the afternoon to break, it was too late to replenish lost energy as people were already thinking about their plans after work.

“We found that when more hours had elapsed since the beginning of the work shift,” the study says, “fewer resources and more symptoms of poor health were reported after a break. Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective.”

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Another key finding? A break does not have to be non-work related. A break simply means doing something you like to do, rather than something you have to do. And if you take a better break, you’re more likely to be a better employee, the study found, as it also led to do fewer headaches, less eye strain and reduced back pain.

That aligns with research from Harvard Business Review from a few years ago.

Charlotte Fritz, an Associate Professor in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Portland State University, studied long vacations and quick breaks to the bathroom, or microbreaks unrelated to work. She found that the best breaks were those that involved work-related taks, as opposed to updating your Facebook status or calling a friend.

“Nearly across the board,” Fritz said at the time, “microbreaks that were not job related, such as getting a glass of water, calling a relative, or going to the bathroom, didn’t seem to have any significant relationship to people’s reported energy (what we called their vitality). Some activities, like listening to music and making weekend plans, seemed to have a negative impact on energy. The only time people showed an increase in vitality was after they took short breaks to do work-related things, such as praise a colleague or write a to-do list.”

Just as research has shown that small snacks are good throughout the day, frequent short breaks were also shown by the Baylor researchers to be better than one longer break.

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“Unlike your cellphone, which popular wisdom tells us should be depleted to zero percent before you charge it fully to 100 percent, people instead need to charge more frequently throughout the day,” Hunter said.

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Doug Most can be reached at dmost@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost