Employee Wellness


Why Micro Breaks Should Be Normalized in the Workplace and 5 Ways to Get Started

Encouraging employees to take short breaks to reset and relieve stress throughout the workday may be more effective than encouraging them to take a vacation.

a man taking a micro break at his desk, stretching

The Calm Team

5 min read

More than 80% of U.S. employees say they struggle with work-related stress on a daily basis. If you’re an HR leader or manager trying to retain talent, that’s a huge concern. Unaddressed stress can quickly lead to employee burnout, departures, and more stress for the team left behind.  

In the battle to prevent burnout, encouraging employees to use their paid time off (PTO)—if available—might seem like the best place to start. But a more effective strategy might be to normalize micro breaks throughout the workday, for your employees and yourself.

Why vacations often fail to help employees relieve stress

Taking a chunk of time away from work can do wonders for the psyche. It also can create rather than alleviate stress for employees. Worries about work piling up, emails going unanswered, or missed opportunities can weigh on workers while they’re off the job. That might be why more than half (54%) of people continue to work while on vacation, according to one study.  

Employees who successfully disconnect from work while on vacation often return to a stressful game of catch-up. It’s not surprising that nearly a quarter of workers (24%) say the benefits of a vacation, such as feeling reinvigorated and less stressed, disappear upon returning to work, and 40% say those benefits last just a few days

Rather than rely on paid time off (PTO) as a primary source of stress relief for employees, consider making micro breaks a standard feature of your workplace.

What’s a micro break and how can it help?

When feeling pressure to meet a deadline or finish a long list of tasks on a to-do list, employees may feel they need to forgo the break and instead push through. If this behavior turns into a pattern, stress can build and ultimately lead to burnout.

But taking a break doesn’t necessarily mean stepping away for an hour-long lunch or even a 15-minute coffee break. In fact, taking a micro break—a break of just a few minutes or even less—not only helps to bring the stress hormones in our bodies back into balance but can benefit us in many other ways. Studies have shown that:

What do micro breaks look like?

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for taking a micro break; employees need to discover what works best for them, whether meditating for a minute or two, doing a 30-second breathing exercise, performing a few yoga stretches, taking a walk, looking out a window, or calling a coworker to catch up for 5 or 10 minutes. What matters most is taking the time to focus on something other than work each hour. 

Signs that it’s time to take a mental health break

It can be challenging to break old habits and establish new ones. For employees who resist taking breaks, here are some common signs they can use to know it’s time to take one:

  • Mental fog: Struggling with basic tasks that typically feel easy
  • Constant tiredness: Fatigue that won’t quit even with adequate sleep  
  • Lack of focus: An inability to concentrate or recall information
  • Apathy: A loss of interest in and/or motivation for normal activities
  • Unhealthy eating: Skipping meals, emotional eating, or binging
  • Frequent illness: Headaches, upset stomach, and feeling run down
  • Irritability: Short fuses and strained personal relationships 

5 ways to help employees integrate micro breaks into the workday

As a manager or HR leader, you can take steps to make it easier for employees to establish micro breaks as a standard part of their workday. Here are five ideas to get you started:

1. Emphasize the benefits of taking micro breaks

Educate employees about the common signs they need a mental timeout. Emphasize how micro breaks can help them, from reducing stress to improving focus and increasing mental and physical well-being. 

2. Offer easy-to-access tools

Support employees in taking breaks by making it easy for them to access tools for brief meditations, breathing exercises, movement and relaxation. Calm offers a wide variety of mindfulness programs and tools that employees can easily incorporate into their workday to help with stress and anxiousness and build resilience. 

One example is music on Calm that supports employees in using the “Pomodoro technique,” a proven way to help people focus and complete tasks efficiently by alternating between focused work sessions and micro breaks.

3. Lead by example

Adopt and share your own strategies for taking micro breaks throughout the day. Encourage employees to share their strategies, too.

4. Reserve 5 minutes for breaks between meetings

Encourage managers and employees to carve out 5-minute gaps between meetings to allow everyone to slow down, be present in the moment, and realign the body and mind. Scheduling 25-minute and 55-minute meetings will enable employees to reset before the next meeting and help prevent stress from building.

5. Integrate moments of mindfulness into meetings

Ask leaders and managers to begin or close meetings with a moment of mindfulness and watch it catch on. They can kick start a meeting with a breathing exercise, for example, or close a meeting with a 60-second meditation. With the right tools, integrating mindfulness breaks into meetings is simple. For example, Calm for Zoom Meetings enables them to integrate any of the 3,000+ Calm sessions, including breathing exercises, mindfulness tools, and movement and wisdom exercises, into the workday before, during, or at the conclusion of Zoom meetings.  

Mental health breaks are on employee wish lists

Calm’s survey of 4,000+ workers showed that employees want more mental health benefits from their employers. At the top of their wishlist? Mental health days off, followed by mental health breaks during the workday and digital tools to help them manage stress, burnout, and anxiety. Normalizing micro breaks is an easy way to get started and can pave the way to a healthier, happier workplace culture.

For more information on proactively supporting employee mental health and well-being, connect with a Calm specialist today. 

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