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A 30-Minute ‘Me’ Break Can Make You a Better Worker, Study Shows

New research suggests that detaching from work during a lunch break can boost energy and help you to better respond to the demands of the day

by Michelle Neeley-University of Florida News Office
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stressed workerA new study has found that early-career doctors—and the rest of us—can be better at our jobs if we simply set aside as little as 30 minutes a day for some “me” time.Photo courtesy of the University of FloridaIf there are crumbs on your desk from countless lunches spent responding to emails and attending to other job-related responsibilities, it may be time to clean up and take a step back.

New research suggests that detaching from work during a lunch break can boost energy and help you to better respond to the demands of the day.

That’s the message behind a new study that finds early-career doctors—and the rest of us—can be better at our jobs if we simply set aside as little as 30 minutes a day for some “me” time.

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The alternative, the study finds, is a scenario in which the patient may suffer.

The study, conducted by University of Florida and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga researchers and published in Psychology, Health & Medicine Journal’s third issue in 2016, found that active recovery activities like exercising and volunteering can help employees recover quickly and respond better to their jobs’ demands.

Researchers focused on the work and rest patterns of 38 early-career physicians from a teaching hospital in the Southeast. Of the participants, 63.2 percent were male and the median age was 29. The typical physician can average an 80-hour work week, leaving little opportunity for leisure and sleep.

Related Article: New Research Confirms How to Take Better Workday Breaks

“Residents are a very unique population, the stressors that they engage with throughout the day are a lot more significant than those of the average American. Therefore, these moments of replenishment are that much more important,” said Nicole Cranley, the study’s lead researcher. Cranley did the research while a doctoral candidate in UF’s department of behavioral science and community health and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study assessed the time early-career physicians spend at work versus the time they spent on sleep and leisure, their ability to detach from work during non-work hours and whether they engaged in active or passive recovery activities.

Physicians ranked activities they engaged in at home and at work for how draining or energy boosting they were.

The results showed that the time early-career physicians spent on work exceeded the time they spent on sleep and leisure activities combined—and although eating was the most highly ranked at-work activity, even lunch breaks were consumed by work.

“They grab things and go, or they are eating while they are in conference or listening to a lecture. There really isn’t that time when they are not doing something related to work,” Cranley said.

Researchers also found that the participants had trouble psychologically detaching from work and that they engaged in more passive forms of recovery in their non-work time. While passive recovery, like watching television, is not necessarily harmful, it also does not help to boost energy levels beyond the baseline like active recovery activities can. 

These patterns of working without taking time to recover fully can lead to burnout.

“Burnout is a serious issue,” said Cranley, “It’s usually related to the fact that you’re not taking enough time for self-care or engaging in activities that help you gain back some of those resources.”

Higher levels of burnout, she said, lead to higher rates of poor-quality patient care.

Related Article: How Helping Co-Workers Can Wear You Out

“You can only effectively care for someone if you are in a good state of mind. You have to be in a good place to be able to give your all to someone else,” she said.

One way to replenish resources is engaging in active recovery activities outside of work, no matter how little time is available to engage in those activities.

“It doesn’t matter if you only have 45 minutes to go to the gym—you take those 45 minutes for yourself,” Cranley said.

She said the study’s findings provide the groundwork to improve physician self-care and medical education.

“It’s a very unique situation that residents are in because they are expected to have all of the answers, when oftentimes they don’t,” she said.

She said the goal of the research is to help medical schools and hospitals recognize the nature of the stressors that the early career physician population faces and equip them with skills to deal with stress and recognize signs of burnout in themselves.

“I think where we are missing the mark is in medical education—it is a culture issue and we need to reassure our health professionals that it’s okay to need self-care,” Cranley said. “Everybody’s valuable, everybody needs to take care of themselves sometimes. We can’t all be 100 percent all the time.”