July 2022: Impacts of Multiple Brief Breaks During Work on Mental Health

Chronic stress inflicts many impacts on employees, management, processes, collaboration and of course the bottom line – so how can we learn to cope and live with it more comfortably?  How does stress factor into the development of Musculoskeletal Disorders and why are employers justifiably concerned as we enter the second half of 2022?

 

Prior to COVID-19, employee stress had already been clearly identified as a highly costly and disruptive health issue affecting employers.  Now, due to the pandemic and shifting workscape, employee stress has understandably become more acute.  

Beyond COVID-19, employees today are facing historic inflation, a higher cost of living and a loss of spending power never seen before by this current generation.

In short, most people have been receiving significant chronic stressors from multiple sources over the last 24 months which will continue through the next 24 months at the very least.

Employee stress, beyond its own innate pathology, is also a condition with contagion-like characteristics which can spread like viruses through employee conversations, chats, emails and online meetings.  For these and many other good reasons, employee stress has become an important mission-critical priority on the radar of employers concerned about organizational effectiveness and wellness.

A recently published Cleveland Clinic study “Habits of Mentally Healthy People” found remarkable impacts on people’s mental health from taking multiple brief breaks throughout the day for activities that relieve stress, depression, and/or anxiety.  From the report: Americans are finding these “moments” more doable and effective than more extended periods of mental health-boosting activities.

In fact, seven out of ten Americans (70%) report that taking these shorter breaks throughout the day was more beneficial for maintaining and improving their mental wellbeing than taking one 30- to 60-minute break.

Stress, A Dangerous Accelerant in The Development of MSDs

It’s been known for many decades that stress creates physiological responses, which have been the focus of a significant body of research over many decades.  Research has conclusively determined that stress plays a significant role, as an independent variable, in the development of Work-Related Upper Extremity MSDs.  

The understanding of stress being an independent variable correlating to Musculoskeletal Disorders as the dependent variable is far too important to dismiss.  Simply said, stress can play a significant role in the development of workplace injuries of computer users.

A reader may ask: “How can something you experience in your mind impact physical ergonomics, such as in the case of computer users which mostly driven by their behaviors of posture, activity and recovery time?”  The answer has been widely researched and well-understood for many decades:

Beyond the innate physical pathology of musculoskeletal disorders and eventual workplace injuries of computer workers, this additional factor of “employee stress” prominently layers on top of the need of actively managing computer user behaviors including posture, movement and recovery time as an important organizational mitigation strategy and best practice.

Combining these factors in the holistic equation of Health and Wellness, left unchecked, something will have to give at some point in many employees and therefore will significantly impact the organization they’re employed by.

The Psychological Power of Pause – Give Me A Break

Health and safety professionals clearly understand the vital importance of the behaviors of working in neutral postures and providing metabolic recovery time while working (microbreaks) to break up static postures.  Beyond that, however, the value of microbreaks goes much further for employees and employers.

For decades, psychologists have studied people’s work behaviors and habits, publishing across the top peer-reviewed Psychological Journals.  The studies have examined the impacts of providing brief recovery time while working, which any person can learn with the right approach.

What is most repeated and common in the research is how there are simple behavioral improvements which yield remarkable, reliable and sustainable gains in comfort, focus, fatigue and accuracy.

A representative article published in The American Psychological Association Give me a break along with similar articles and papers, summarize the benefits of frequent brief microbreaks while working (1 or 2 minutes per hour) and their impact on physical and mental health:

 

As with everything we do in our lives, it’s one thing to be aware of something we should do and quite another to make it a new long-term behavior where it becomes automatic.  This applies to any human skill including music, sports and even wearing seat belts or healthfully working on our computers for 8-10 hours each workday.  At the top of the list of successful approaches is to have a coach guide us to making new behaviors automatic.

ErgoSuite’s gentle behavioral coaching tools, for Windows and Mac, are widely implemented by the world’s most successful employers to help employees learn to automatically work with the desired behaviors of using neutral postures, taking micro-breaks while working and moving about periodically during their day to stretch and break up static postures. 

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