Monthly Archives: April 2019

Breaking good

“If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Francis Crick Institute. But taking a break from work isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality too.

With examples of burn out, work:life imbalance, 24/7 working, mental health issues and stress featuring more and more frequently in articles describing the experiences of PhD students, researchers and academics, I was interested to hear about how taking breaks from work, especially short breaks, can help to alleviate some of these pressures. Founded on wide ranging research, the advice is remarkably similar in terms of the nature and frequency of breaks needed to refresh and de-stress you and your brain. Interestingly, the key factors appear to lie with two polar opposites: physical activity and sleep (more precisely, napping).

Here are three examples:

  1. In his webinar, hosted by BrightTALK, Daniel Pink, author of “WHEN: The scientific secrets of perfect timing”, explains the power of breaks and summarises what he sees as the most effective and restorative kinds of 10- 15 minute breaks as follows:
  • Something beats nothing – even a micro-break is better than continual work;
  • Moving beats stationary – this means any kind of physical activity from vigorous exercise and sports to a relaxing stroll;
  • Social beats solo – better to spend time with someone having a non work-related conversation [or, as I used to do, walking your dog];
  • Outside beats inside – seeing nature is restorative, even if it’s just looking up at the sky or trees and grass in an urban environment;
  • Fully detached beats semi-detached – leave your phone behind!

Pink also recommends the ‘nappuccino’ – drinking a strong coffee before taking a 10 – 15 minute nap*. He proposes that the combination of a short nap and caffeine injection is just enough to refresh and restore energy levels and avoids ‘sleep inertia’. However, finding a peaceful environment required for this kind of (in)activity is probably quite challenging for most PhD students and researchers.

2. In their paper entitled “Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress”, Fritz et al (2013) review different types of breaks ranging from long vacations, weekends and work breaks. They looked at the relationship between work-break activities and employee health, well-being and performance outcomes. Their conclusions are similar to those of Pink: activities such as walking and reading, physical exercise, psychological detachment from work and social activities all resulted, to a greater or lesser extent, in an increased positive mood, sense of vitality and vigour, overall well-being, decreased burnout, as well as increased performance. Furthermore, sleeping and napping resulted in decreased fatigue and increased work motivation.

3. My final piece of evidence for the ‘breaking good’ protocol is drawn from Patience Schell (THES, August 7, 2014). In her article, “Work less, do more, live better” she cites the behaviours of historical figures to back up the case for short breaks and physical activity: “fuelled by strong coffee, Ludwig van Beethoven worked from first light until mid-afternoon, breaking up this working time with walks. Afterwards, he walked again, taking pencil and paper to note down ideas. … Walking and thinking seem to go together so naturally that perhaps it’s walking that made us thinkers. Aristotle famously taught while walking along the colonnade connecting the temple of Apollo and the shrine of the Muses.” On the subject of napping Schell goes on to say: “Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill all joined the nap-taking fraternity. Some companies actively encourage their workers to nap: Nike offers employees spaces for napping or meditation, while Google offers napping “pods”. Again, this is not something that’s likely to happen in universities, although finding a quiet spot in the library might serve just as well.

With an autonomous and relatively independent work culture within the academic community, it’s even more important to factor in your own system of breaks. Granted there will be times when work pressures demand hard graft, but try not to let ‘academic freedom’ mean the freedom to work 24/7 the whole time.

*I’m not sure this translates for tea drinkers like me, but I find that a short nap without coffee serves just as well.

Fritz C, Ellis AM, Demsky, CA, Lin, BC and Guros, M. 2013. Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress. Organizational dynamics, 42, 274 – 280.

Related content:

Communication and salvation – a route to PhD salvation?
How past times help you to score in science