Workplace Breaks and Positive Health Habits

A growing amount of research is beginning to look at the benefits of taking breaks and promoting positive health habits at work. Sedentary behavior is on the rise and especially affects those working in an office setting. Additionally, there is mixed research regarding types of breaks at work and their benefits. This paper will explore, in further detail, the problems surrounding workplace breaks and sedentary behaviors, differences in types of workplace breaks, the impact on health and productivity, and what this means moving forward for organizations.

Statement of Problem

Taking advantage of evenings, weekends, and vacations has been shown to provide a number of benefits to employees. Such benefits include a lower risk of burnout, higher rates of performance, and possibly even decreased blood pressure and heart rate (Hunter & Wu, 2016). While much research has been done to highlight the benefits of off-hours activities, growing research is beginning to suggest that breaks at work are just as beneficial to employees physically, as well as psychologically.

American adults spend an average of 7.5 hours per day sedentary and American workers, especially those with primarily desk-based jobs, can spend up to 70 – 80% of their time at work being sedentary (Buman, Mullane, Toledo, Rydell, Gaesser, Crespo, Hannan, Feltes, Vuong, & Pereira, 2017). With sedentary behaviors on the rise, more researchers are beginning to look at how to reduce such behaviors in the workplace.

Most employees would agree that taking breaks helps get them through the workday. Nonwork activities over short breaks may help employees briefly recover from work stress. However, organizational studies have mostly overlooked common examples of employees’ nonwork activities between work responsibilities (Kim, Park, & Niu, 2016). Research has been inconclusive regarding the types of breaks at work and decreasing work stress while enhancing productivity. Furthermore, reduced work stress, even briefly, not only benefits employees but can also benefit organizations.

Sedentary Behavior Interventions

Studies are beginning to look at how to decrease sedentary time in the workplace. Additionally, growing research proposes that consistent disruptions in sedentary time may lower risks associated with sedentary behavior. Research shows that short bursts of physical activity (< 10 minutes) result in a reduction of cardiovascular risk factors (Cooley & Pedersen, 2013). Additionally, Cooley and Pedersen (2013) reported that increasing focused and physical movement during both leisure and work time is supported as a way to diminish the possibility of cardiovascular illness. Furthermore, Bennie, Timperio, Crawford, Dunstan, and Salmon (2011) identified desk-based work settings as crucial settings to encourage disruptions in sitting. Interventions looking to increase involvement in physical activity programs during workplace breaks have been designed in response.

E-health Intervention

E-health software was downloaded to employee computers and was designed to passively or actively prompt employees to break from prolonged sitting by increasing movement. It was found that when employees were passively prompted, that is, reminded and forced to engage with the software, they were significantly more likely to increase their physical activity as compared to being actively prompted, where the employees had to seek out the software to engage in physical activity.

Sit-stand Intervention

Employees completed either MOVE+, pursuing increases in light physical activity at work or STAND+, which combined the MOVE+ with the addition of a sit-stand workstation. Time spent sitting, upright, and stepping will be assessed with an accelerometer. Cardiovascular risk, productivity, and satisfaction in the workplace will be assessed through a questionnaire during follow-up assessments. This study has yet to be done, however, it provides a thoughtful outline for not only looking at health benefits but also looking at workplace productivity and satisfaction.

Descriptive Norm Messages Intervention

According to Priebe and Spink (2015), descriptive norms are defined as perceptions regarding others’ prevalent behaviors and further explain there is growing research regarding descriptive norms and physical activity. It was found that changes in sedentary behavior in an office setting followed descriptive norm messages.

Active Workstations Intervention

The aim was to determine the effectiveness of active workstations on arousal and satisfaction in the workplace. Employees were randomly assigned to a workstation: seated, standing, cycling or walking. They were then given thirty-five minutes to complete web-based tasks. Their findings revealed that walking workstations supported higher levels of satisfaction and arousal with less boredom and stress and with cycling workstations showing reduced satisfaction and performance.

Differences Between Breaks

More research is beginning to emerge that focuses on the benefits of taking breaks at work. Trougaksos and Hideg (2009) found that activities unrelated to work during breaks may support employees temporarily to recover from work stress. As more research emerges, it is important to look at different types of breaks and how they impact productivity in the workplace.


Micro-breaks are defined as activities with possible recovery mechanisms in the workplace that fall under four categories: relaxation, nutrition-intake, social, and cognitive (Kim, Park, & Niu, 2016). Their findings showed that when employees engage in relaxation or social activities, there are less adverse effects at the end of the workday. Their findings further indicate that if employees temporarily suspend work effort to take a moment to refuel their energy, they are likely to have an easier time recovering from negative load reactions of doing work all day.

Booster Breaks

Booster breaks are defined as organized, routine work breaks intended to improve physical and psychological health, enhance job satisfaction and sustain or increase work productivity (Taylor, King, Shegog, Paxton, Evans-Hudnall, Rempel, Chen, & Yancey, 2013). The findings show that employees benefited from booster break programs in the following ways: less stress, promoted enjoyment, increased health awareness and facilitated behavior change while enhancing workplace social interactions.

Employee choice

Breaks were identified as formal or informal moments throughout the workday in which the employees were not actively focused on work-related tasks. Hunter and Wu (2016) found that activities in which employees preferred and were taken early in the workday related to increased resource recovery following the break.

Implications for Workplace Breaks

Previous research suggests that organizations can benefit from investing in their employees taking breaks, as well as reducing sedentary time. Breaks at work play a significant role in offering energy for employees to perform their work proficiently (Rhee & Kim, 2016). There is mounting research suggesting that breaks have the potential to increase employee productivity if employees are able to take short breaks throughout the workday. The basic rationale in ergonomics and management science for introducing breaks in occupational work is to maintain good productivity and a sustainable health and well-being of the individual worker. This is done by providing an opportunity to recover from tasks that might otherwise lead to a loss in performance (Mathiassen, Hallman, Lyskov, & Hygge, 2014). Breaks do not only benefit employees on a psychological level but also a physical level.

Sedentary behavior leads to increased risk of obesity. Research shows a link to a higher rate of workplace injury for those considered obese (Sliter & Yuan, 2015). Looking at ways to promote healthy habits at the organizational level is beneficial, as it reduces risk of further health complications down the line. This benefits organizations as employees will not have to miss work due to complication and tend to have better focus with less sedentary behavior.


This paper has explored problems surrounding workplace breaks and sedentary behavior, differences in interventions and types of breaks, as well as the impact this can have on organizations. There is strong evidence supporting that short breaks and interventions positively correlate with productivity. However, further research is needed on how to best implement these changes at the organizational level.

By Melissa Hasselbring, LPC

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