WorkZone: Freedom over free time


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Most of us have had that feeling during the workday -- sometime after lunch but way before quitting time, probably right around 2 p.m. -- when afternoon fatigue sets in.

Do you push ahead with that project you're slogging through or do you walk away from your computer for a few minutes to refresh your perspective?

While it might seem counterproductive to leave your desk in order to get work done, new research shows you are probably better off if you decide to take that break.

Employers aren't required by either federal or Pennsylvania law to give employees paid breaks during the work day, but most allow for an unpaid meal break. And more employers have started to recognize that working long stretches without interruption isn't the best way to get the most out of their employees.

John Trougakos is a professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at the University of Toronto, and studies issues around employees' organizational lives. That includes how often they take breaks and how they schedule their time.

"We need to give employees autonomy, to give them choices and options over when they take breaks," Mr. Trougakos said. "The more freedom they have to choose their preference, the more likely they'll be able to reduce fatigue and improve their productivity."

That issue of choice is key, Mr. Trougakos said. When employees are able to manage their own time, they're less likely to feel overtaxed.

"That personal choice can really offset the tiring effects of work," he said. "And that freedom to take breaks lets employees feel more productive. It can really set the culture, as a nod from the company that says 'we recognize the need to take care of your well-being.' It's something small that can improve morale."

He was careful to point out that he wasn't advocating unlimited breaks, but rather a work environment that allows employees to decide how to use their free time.

He co-authored a study that tracked how 103 workers spent their lunch breaks over a 10-day period. Those that were able to do whatever activity they chose during that break were less tired at the end of the workday, the study found.

"[Employees] should use their half-hour lunch break in a way they see fit," he said. "They don't want to feel pressured to work during that time, or be forced to eat at a certain time."

Giving employees more freedom over their free time can reduce the amount of emotional exhaustion that can build up over time, Mr. Trougakos said, not just during a given workday. When employees start feeling burned out, it affects short-term and long-term productivity, which is bad for both the worker and the workplace.

"It can lead to longer leaves of absence, more turnover, and the dread of getting back to work if they don't feel appreciated," Mr. Trougakos said.

Employees who have freedom have to use it responsibly, however, Mr. Trougakos said.

"Sometimes you're working on a project and really need to stay focused," he said. "It's important that employees plan the way they work but not forget to plan when they'll take a break."


Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241.

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