Work Breaks: What you should know.

We’ve all heard that sitting too long or standing too long can be considered to be risky. It’s a pretty standard ergonomic risk at this point of time. We’ve looked at break strategies before in our blog. One way to manage the risk is to include some sort of posture change, recovery time or break taking strategy. Disclaimer: These should never replace a thorough ergonomic review/assessment to identify root cause and fix risk!

In the past couple of years I have seen a lot of innovative approaches to incorporating positive habits to reduce the duration of sitting and sedentary postures. One that I’ve been a part of before is via the ‘gamification’ of pro-health behaviours, specifically the 10,000 daily step challenge. I found that if you were not able to go for a walk during the lunch hour, it was pretty difficult to achieve the 10,000 steps/day goal. It did incorporate a more active mentality into mine and my colleagues perspectives, and frankly it was a lot of fun to make our daily activities into a competition! Did I want to be the top step taker in my organization? Yes. Was I? Unfortunately not. But I digress.

Why this is important.

Time is precious. This is especially true when you work in an office with high time pressure; we must be efficient with our time in order to finish our jam-packed daily schedules. Since there is always a variety of demands on our time, it doesn’t mean that we simply ignore taking breaks. Rather, this should laser-focus our attention to make sure our breaks are efficient as possible because they allow our bodies to recover from the physical strain associated with computer work.

Work breaks (also known as recovery periods) are an essential component of any organization’s wellness and prevention initiatives. Contrary to popular opinion, there is more than one type of break that is available. In fact, most people are using these without formally being introduced to them. These are:

  1. Very short pauses (sometimes called a change of posture)
  2. Micropauses, where workers can relax their arms and hands briefly off the keyboard
  3. Short breaks initiated by work such as when the telephone rings or chatting with a coworker/supervisor
  4. Breaks initiated by the workers such as a deliberate change in tasks, such as changing from computer work to faxing, photocopying, of filing
  5. Formal breaks such as coffee breaks and lunch time

Unique-Breaks

Within each of these break strategies, there is a lot of employee choice or discretion, which of course is a good thing and recommended. It is always advised for employees to have control over how they vary their work and respond to the need for short pauses or breaks. Simply put, they know best when they feel discomfort or fatigue and when they can most benefit from a break. No matter the work conditions (call centre work or high work pressure/deadlines) staff should always be encouraged, when possible to use any of the self-directed breaks listed above.

As an employer, what can we offer our staff in the way of education on the most valuable types of activities to reduce pain and fatigue. Well, firstly, in order to have a significant and positive effect on worker discomfort and fatigue, rest breaks must differ substantially from computer work (or the main task being completed). Using a Smartphone is typically not enough variation in posture to have much of an effect on long-term comfort. But, standing (while not completing computer work) or walking provides enough variability in posture that it is beneficial to the worker at reducing long-term discomfort and fatigue.

For a break to be beneficial at reducing worker fatigue and discomfort, it must be different enough from seated computer work (or main task) in the following areas: posture (specifically for the neck, upper back, and upper arms), movements, and muscle activity. Technically speaking, the variation with more vigorous tasks will be the most valuable for the worker. Interestingly, this adds more credibility to the ‘gamification’ step challenge that I was part of. At the same time, these alternative tasks shouldn’t be so vigorous as to strain the body and result in injury! That would not add much credibility to anyone’s wellness initiative!

What about Stretch Breaks? Stretching programs seem to be so popular today. Well, contrary to popular belief, there actually has been mixed reviews in the literature to the benefit of stretching in reducing pain. My advice is to take a another look at the 5 ways breaks can be incorporated in your workday. Perhaps you or your colleagues are already use many of these break taking behaviours!

What you can implement today.

Are you thinking of adding a formalized break system to your wellness strategy? To add some more value, we have put together a short ‘get started’ list for you:

  • Workers should always be encouraged, for their own benefit and for improved work productivity, to incorporate the 5 break types (above) into their daily routine.
  • What is the most optimal break time frame? Simply put it depends on the user! For really repetitive typing work, it may be recommended to have some sort of recovery every hour. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal work ‘break’, it can be any of the four other options from above too!
  • When workers deliberately choose their breaks (#4 from above), breaks should have variation in: posture, movements, and muscle activity to have the best results in discomfort and fatigue reduction.
  • For a break to be beneficial at reducing worker fatigue and discomfort, it must be different enough from the main work task.
  • Stretching as a break may not be enough task variation to reduce user discomfort and fatigue.

Source

Barbieri, D., Srinivasan, D., Mathiassen, S., Nogueira, H. & Oliveira, A. (2015). The ability of non-computer tasks to increase biomechanical exposure variability in computer-intensive office work. Ergonomics. 58(1), 50-64.

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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