Monday, 21 February 2011

Booster breaks at work enhance health and energy, and could ripple through organisations

Many of us in developed countries know that our lifestyle gets in the way of achieving a level of health in line with our level of wealth. With around half our waking hours spent in work settings, Wendell C. Taylor recommends an evidence-based workplace policy aimed to boost our health, with follow-on benefits for the organisation.

Taylor's paper, an eclectic review of research and practises including US federal recommendations, yogic techniques and sports science, points out that the modern workplace is laced with health hazards. These include a lack of strenuous physical activity, prolonged bouts of sitting still, weight gain (often due to unhealthy consumption), and of course stress. His solution is to take fifteen minute 'booster breaks' that involve health-promoting behaviours such as physical activity, meditation and breath training.

Fifteen minutes may seem like small beer, but Taylor lays out the evidence that these small efforts may have big effects. The US Department of Health and Humans Services, through a review of hundreds of studies, concluded that having some moderate-to-heavy physical activity in your routine improves health, even when the doses are small; indeed, no minimum level has been identified for producing health benefits.

Sedentary behaviour has serious effects on health - the risk of obesity increases by five percent for every two hours spent sitting at work - and the effects are worse when not interrupted; luckily, that's just what taking a booster break will do. Snacking and smoking, both common ways to use or even to justify work breaks, are suppressed when alternatives are promoted to fill our time. Given that on average we can prevent weight gain by tipping our energy intake-outtake by 100 kilocalories, these small effects matter.

We can also put in time to change our state of mind. Meditation can reduce anxiety and increase clarity of thought, and it can be hacked to fit even the short times of work breaks. Taylor asserts that rhythmic breathing can affect stress and immune function as well as reduce depression, and cites evidence for decreases in blood pressure from three months of practice of a few daily fifteen-minute sessions. Of course, all these types of break can increase blood flow and energy levels, which are both important for work effectiveness.

Taylor recommends sanctioning and promoting these health-enhancing practises in the workplace as booster breaks where employees get together to breathe, work out, or experience Big Mind together. He argues that such a policy can have multiple effects in a ripple-like fashion: the primary impact is at the centre, on individual behaviours; a smaller but profound effect takes place for individual outcomes like health, stress, energy, fun; then increasingly smaller effects occur for organisational morale, productivity, healthcare costs, and even for the organisation's image.

Taylor argues that breaks can enhance daily productivity even if they reduce the total time working, citing research conducted with data entry workers. This might seem strange if we see the capacity for work purely in terms of 'time available', but once we see energy as a major limiting factor this makes a lot of sense. Organisational morale is boosted partly by the group design, which encourages worker cohesiveness and a sense of collective fun.

We all want to stay well at work - the challenge is to know what we can do within our busy schedules. This article argues that even as little as fifteen minutes from our day can make a personal difference, and by taking our colleagues along we can multiply that impact, for ourselves and for the organisation. The full Booster Break methodology is currently being assessed using an ongoing randomised control trial - rest assured we'll bring you a follow-up once it's completed. Taylor, W. (2011). Booster Breaks: An Easy-to-Implement Workplace Policy Designed to Improve Employee Health, Increase Productivity, and Lower Health Care Costs Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 26 (1), 70-84 DOI: 10.1080/15555240.2011.540991


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