When it comes to work, the United States leads the world in many areas. As a population we are productive, efficient, creative and industrious. We also don’t take near enough breaks. We lag the world in time off and, even when we get vacation time we often don’t take it from fear of either being greeted by an overstuffed inbox upon our return or even getting replaced altogether. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently said on bigthink.com, “Most Americans only get two weeks off right now. But many don't even take the full two weeks out of fear of losing their jobs. One in four gets no paid vacation at all, not even holidays. Overall, Americans have less vacation time than workers in any other advanced economy. This is absurd. A mandatory three weeks off would be good for everyone — including employers. Studies show workers who take time off are more productive after their batteries are recharged. They have higher morale, and are less likely to mentally check out on the job.”
Think about it this way, if American workers were machines, we’d be the equivalent of a factory running at full tilt 24/7. But then what happens when that machine eventually breaks down? We could be repaired with new parts or even replaced altogether. But the fact is, we aren’t machines, we’re human beings. And human beings not only need breaks, but we need to take meaningful breaks so that we can make the most of our time at work. To get a better idea of how breaks (and not taking enough of them) affect us psychologically, I turned to our longtime friend Dr. Natosha K. Monroe, a psychological consultant and cognitive behavioral therapist.
Mark Fadden (MF): “From a psychological perspective, why is downtime so important at work?”
Natosha Monroe (NM): “Given the harsh reality of the United States offering essentially the most horrendous life-balance work schedules of any country in the world, we need to find a way to stay sane. And just check out our psychopharmaceutic profits —we’re simply not doing it at this point. Rather than sitting around popping pills, mindlessly making Big Pharm even richer, and holding our breath for a schedule that’s less “busy,” I implore my fellow worker bees to take control of their lives however possible.
“One way is to force some downtime into each and every workday. Period. It’s not impossible. No, we aren’t in Spain, so unfortunately a two-hour lunch break with vino will not likely go over well with our supervisor. But there are most definitely things to implement.”
MF: “In order to be the most effective, how should someone use their downtime at work? Should it mean something or add some kind of value to your workday? Or should it be more of a "brain break" for it to be most effective?”
NM: “Something as simple as setting a timer to signal a quick five-minute break to glance at recent pictures taken of the dog or taking deep, slow breaths can bring a precious moment of peace or clarity.
“A quick walk to Starbucks on a beautiful day can break the monotony or refresh a creative vibe. Using the app’s order ahead feature can make it a super quick trip…and the caffeine will bring a pep to your step if nothing else.”
MF: “What about the commute time? From a psychological perspective, is there a way to make it more effective or reduce the stressful nature of our commutes?”
NM: “That inevitable commute to the office can serve a higher purpose such as morphing into some well-deserved “me time.” If public transportation or carpooling is an option, take it…and sit back and relax with a book instead of racking up mileage and blood pressure rates twice daily with bumper-to-bumper traffic. No choice but to drive solo? Experiment with different radio stations or audio books until something takes your mind to a more relaxing place. And yes, road rage is a choice best unmade.”
MF: “From a psychological perspective, how important is it to create a routine for our downtime?”
NM: “A routine of downtime may serve best in cases where the break is anticipated or can offer a needed reprieve, but it’s not necessary. Strategically sampling different downtime practices and seeing what leads to the most desired and noticeable effects are necessary to truly get the most out of every minute. Keep in mind what is rejuvenating and what is actually additional mind or body expenditure.”
MF: “From a psychological perspective, what about taking a break from electronic devices as part of our downtime?”
NM: “Electronic devices, despite their very deliberate disguises, are primarily stimulating. There is a time and place for escapism such as watching mindless media. However, if there is not a noticeable decrease in overall anxiousness or an increase in happiness or productivity—what purpose is it truly serving? The brain operates mainly on a subconscious level, so it will opt for that moment of engineered mindless engagement than something that will ultimately decrease stress. This is especially an issue among children, but even with adults’ constant use of technology leads to “rewiring” of brain tendencies for poorer mood regulation and social connection abilities.”
MF: “Anything else you'd like to include about the psychological benefits of creating/having/using downtime at work?”
NM: “Whether it just pays the bills or allows a heartfelt ambition to be fulfilled, work is important. Just as important though, is a priority unlikely to be emphasized elsewhere in our current U.S. society: Our innermost need to take the time to smell the roses of our lives.”
Dr. Natosha K. Monroe is a psychological consultant and cognitive behavioral therapist with offices in Fort Worth and Southlake. Her expertise has been utilized by the FBI Training Division and the American Counseling Association. She currently enjoys empowering clients with career development and anxiety-related challenges and companies with human factors strengthening. You can find out more about her under “Find a Therapist” at www.psychologytoday.com.