Work Rest Rhythm
In our latest article by Neurozone®'s Organizational Psychologist, Liisa Kleinhans, we unpack the neuroscience behind why normalizing taking breaks must be a priority in any organization.
Author: Liisa KleinhansCo-Author: Etienne van der Walt
At Neurozone® we believe that ensuring that modes of working are well-balanced by modes of resting and rejuvenating means that your brain-body system's naturally cyclic settings are adhered to. Hence, prioritizing a rhythm of work-rest-work-rest promotes your team's well-being, lowers their risk for burnout, and sets them up for high performance. Taking breaks from work has also been proven to have a significant impact on your team's ability to perform; it increases individuals’ ability to pay attention to and concentrate on the task at hand, and it also has a significant impact on individuals’ moods. Team leaders can support this by actively encouraging team members to take restful time away from work, and by facilitating the understanding that taking leave is a necessity and not a privilege.
Why we need a balancing rhythm of work and rest
The brain/body system is deeply and intricately connected with the external environment. Science talks about spatial and temporal elements, simply it refers to space (spatial) and time (temporal). We work and play in this external environment. Effectively we have to stay alive, survive and thrive on the spinning earth, causing us to have light and darkness. This temporal day-night cycle is easy to understand.
In the same way, there are many other cycles: months, seasons, years, etc. There are also shorter rhythms in a day. Extrapolate this, and we arrive at the rhythmical oscillations of brain waves! Everything is connected and our brain/body systems operate rhythmically. In fact the most primitive part of the brain, called the brainstem, regulates our vital functions of breathing, heart rate, hunger/thirst, and sleep/wake cycles very rhythmically.
Our brain/body system is a fascinating machine, being able to alternate between activation to overcome challenges in the workplace and then to ‘rest’ after the challenges subsided. This alternation can happen hundreds of times per day as and when we need it. (Don’t confuse this ‘restful’ state with sleep. We also call the ‘restful’ state the ‘baseline relaxed physiological state’). In this state, we replenish, refuel and maintain the brain/body system, effectively servicing the machine in waves of activation/deactivation. This ‘activation/deactivation’ rhythm happens daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, etc. Work/Rest rhythms have to take on many forms ranging from short (minutes) to long (holidays, or even longer). See how we have to observe the shorter and longer rhythms and cycles?
A very well-known rhythm is sleep/wake. We now know that not only the brain sleeps at night, but every bodily organ also seems to have an inbuilt day/night clock! Isn’t it just fascinating?
From a systems perspective, we are individuals who aggregate into teams and organizations. Each of these aggregates of individuals forms new living systems/entities with innate rhythms. Understanding that not only individuals but also teams and even the organization have intrinsic work/rest rhythms is imperative for leaders to observe when building high-performance organizations.
Employees need to "refresh" to be fresh
Breaks and ways individuals could unwind from work take on many different forms ranging from sabbaticals, vacations, weekends, evenings, lunch breaks, and micro-breaks at work. The aim of these breaks is for employees to step away from their work-related responsibilities and demands to allow them to recover and move back into a baseline relaxed physiological state. For example, during evenings after work, employees have the time to replenish the psychological resources they expended during their day’s work which will allow them to come back fully charged, able to perform work tasks, and able to cope with their work-related demands the following day (See our article: Energy is Economical.)
Periods of recovery have been shown to be strongly related to the employees’ perceived sense of well-being, their performance capacity or readiness to perform highly (what we call High Performance Readiness at Neurozone®), their concentration, energy, and their intrinsic work motivation. When individuals have time off of work it allows them the opportunity to take a step back and view the bigger picture. Taking a break has been shown to predict higher levels of proactive behavior and increase creativity (Fritz, et.al., 2013).
Our research has shown a statistically significant correlation between Work-Rest Rhythms and Innovation Mindset (0.213). Innovation Mindset reflects the degree to which the team has a mindset that facilitates innovation. Factors that influence such a mindset include how prioritized innovation is within team performance, whether and how problem-solving techniques are evaluated, and awareness of the nature of group thinking.
Taking breaks does not only give your mind a chance to refresh and rejuvenate - when you don’t experience periods of rest in between work, you are also more likely to experience chronic stress, burnout, increased levels of exhaustion, disengagement, or other health-related issues. So, perhaps Labor Standards on working time is not just a set of rules for the workplace - when taking into consideration the importance of work-rest rhythms, these Labor Standards may act as a guide to support our inherent yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily brain-body rhythms.
The South African Basic Conditions of Employment Act refers to taking 21 consecutive day’s annual leave, resting over weekends or after shifts, only working 45 hours per week / 9 hours per day, and having an hour lunch break when working five or more consecutive hours. There might be truth in this “book of rules” that can help protect your team from brain-body implosion.
Taking breaks from work may protect your team members against the long-term health effects of chronic work stress. Research has shown that not taking breaks from work significantly increases the individual’s risk for burnout, cardiovascular diseases, headaches, back pain, fatigue, insomnia or sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression (Afonso, Fonseca, & Pires, 2017; Mesmer-Magnius& Viswesvaran, 2004).
Our research has shown a statistically significant correlation between Work-Rest Rhythms and Energy Leakers (0.235) and Burnout Risk Index (0.235). Energy Leakers reflect the level of chronic stress characterizing the team as a whole. Chronic stress is a condition that leaks performance energy so that the same tasks require much more energy to achieve the same result over time. In other words, chronic stress reverses the low-energy-for-high-yield formula for high performance. A low Energy Leakers score means there are low levels of chronic stress in the team. The Burnout Risk Index addresses to what extent this derailing chronic stress characterizes the team.
Organizations do not walk away untouched by a culture of overwork. Negative organizational related consequences of overwork and employees not taking breaks from work include poorer job performance, increased work withdrawal behaviors (i.e. tardiness, absenteeism, turnover, and low job involvement), decreased morale, and low job satisfaction (Mesmer-Magnius& Viswesvaran, 2004). These individual and organizational outcomes of overwork have a tremendous negative impact on organizations on a fiscal level and on team morale.
* Negative correlations for the Burnout Index and Energy Leakers (characterized by chronic stress) indicate that the Burnout Index and Energy Leakers will decrease as work-rest rhythms increase.
0.10 - 0.30 = Small - medium correlation
0.30 - 0.50 = Medium correlation
0.50 - 1.00 = Large correlation
Seven ways to create a team culture that supports work-rest-rhythms
1. Reframe overwork as a negative trait:
The nature of work is that an individual will never fully complete their to-do lists. There will always be something new to pursue or a subsequent project to start with. Working overtime could, therefore, easily become a norm in high-pressure environments. It is therefore essential not to encourage or reward overwork. As a leader, you could do this by reframing the habit of starting to work earlier or staying late - doing this may help shift the mindset of your team toward encouraging a healthier approach.
2. Normalize work-life balance:
Lead by example by normalizing the fact that everybody has a life outside of work. As a leader, you could do this by sharing what you do over weekends or after work and asking your team about their life outside of work. Sharing non-work experiences does not only help to normalize the fact that we are all humans who have lives and priorities outside of the work environment but also helps to create social safety and a deeper social connection within the team. Neurozone® has found that social safety has a significant correlation of 0.862 (high correlation) with our High Performance Index.
3. Break room:
To motivate individuals to take breaks during the workday (lunch & micro-breaks), you need to have an environment fit for that purpose. Having an enticing breakroom with healthy snacks, a water cooler, coffee station, couches, tables, and chairs will motivate your employees to spend time there as it is an enjoyable experience. This will also allow your employees to mingle and forge connections with people outside their immediate team, which also helps to create a stronger connected organizational culture.
4. Lunch hour:
62% of American employees reported that they have lunch at their desks or do not take lunch breaks at all. Team leaders need to create a psychologically safe work environment for employees to take time for lunch when working remotely. Motivate your team to block their lunch hour out in their calendar. By doing this individuals can see when their team members will not be able to respond immediately. It will also be essential to create a culture where team members respect one another’s lunch breaks by not booking meetings over one another’s lunch hours.
5. Make taking breaks and applying for leave a positive experience:
Adopt a positive attitude toward taking breaks and going on a vacation through formalizing leave policies that shine a positive light on taking time off work. Just changing the wording of your policies could go a long way in changing the perception team members have of taking time off work. This could help shift the perception of work-rest rhythms being a privilege to being a necessity that every individual is entitled to.
6. Leave handover process:
Taking a vacation is positively related to well-being and higher levels of employee engagement and job performance. However, the lasting effect of taking a vacation seems to fade when the employees who return to work are welcomed with high levels of workload to catch up on. To prevent the accumulation of workload, organizations could set up processes and procedures for team members to support one another by temporarily taking over one another’s job tasks while they go on leave. Making use of project management software like Asana, Trello or Monday.com could assist this process as team members could assign tasks to their team members while they’re on leave.
7. Psychological Detachment from work:
Mentally and physically distancing yourself from work while taking long (sabbatical/vacations/weekends) and shorter (evenings) breaks can play an essential role in the recovery process and, subsequently, employee wellbeing.
- Forward planning: To assist employees in detaching from work, employees could be encouraged to schedule time in their calendar for forward planning and making to-do lists for the next day or week. This could assist individuals in closing off their feeling of responsibility, knowing that they will know what to do upon their return to work.
- Friday check-out meeting: End off your work-week with a social team check-out meeting. This will encourage team members to complete their last tasks before the meeting, and will also support the transition from a work-focused mindset to a relaxed and social mindset before the weekend starts, which could also subsequently decrease the chance of working overtime or during the weekend.
- Technology: The digital revolution makes it difficult for employees to detach from work as their smartphones make them “always available”. Smartphones also allow employees to receive work-related notifications at any time of the day. Team leaders should encourage employees to put off all work-related notifications outside of working hours and when on vacation. Team leaders could also encourage team members to not send emails outside of working hours. When working overtime is unavoidable, team members could make use of the “schedule send” function to schedule their emails to be sent during working hours.
Author: Liisa Kleinhans:
Liisa is Neurozone®’s Head of Organizational Development. As a registered Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Social Worker, and Coach, she supports business partners and consulting firms with the integration of Neurozone® into their product offering. She also supports organizations with the implementation of Neurozone® as organizational development interventions ranging from a focus on wellbeing to personal mastery.
Co-author: Dr Etienne van der Walt:
Etienne is a neurologist, co-founder, and CEO of Neurozone®. As thought leader at Neurozone®, he translates his clinical knowledge of the brain/body system into the complex world of personal mastery, leadership, and team effectiveness. Etienne also leads a team of highly qualified neuroscientists to decipher the Neurozone® High Performance Code that informs all the Neurozone® products. Etienne also serves as a neuroscientist on the Consortium for Learning Innovation at McKinsey & Company.
4 August 2021
To subscribe to our newsletters, you can opt in here.
1. Impact of working hours on sleep and mental health, read here. Afonso, M. Fonseca, J. F. Pires, Impact of working hours on sleep and mental health, Occupational Medicine, Volume 67, Issue 5, July 2017, Pages 377–382, https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqx054
2. New Study Shows Correlation Between Employee Engagement And The Long-Lost Lunch Break, read here. A. Kohll. New Study Shows Correlation Between Employee Engagement And The Long-Lost Lunch Break, Forbes, May 2018.
3. Embracing work breaks: Recovering from work stress, read here.
Fritz, C., Ellis, A. M., Demsky, C. A., Lin, B., Embracing work breaks: Recovering from work stress, Organizational Dynamics, Volume 42, Issue 4, Pages 274 - 280, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2013.07.005
4. Take your lunch break!, read here. Tulshyan, R., Take Your Lunch Break!
,Work-Life Balance, Harvard Business Review, January 2021.
5. Convergence between measures of work-to-family and family-to-work conflict: A meta-analytic examination, read here. Mesmer-Magnus, J., Viswesvaran, C., Convergence between measures of work-to-family and family-to-work conflict: A meta-analytic examination, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 67, Issue 2, Pages 215-232, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2004.05.004