Categories
Energy Fatigue Productivity

Does Taking Regular Breaks Really Increase Productivity?

Have a Break

Have some me time…

Over the years I’ve worked for many bosses that had the notion that if you weren’t tapping away on your keyboard or seen to be busy, then you were skiving or stealing company time. From what I remember this forced people to find things to be busy with that didn’t actually add any benefit to the companies, and people just took longer doing their work. Win win for everyone.

Things have got better, but not that much. During challenging economic times people become more aware of job insecurity and don’t want to be seen as the slacker. As a result not only are we working longer hours, but an increasing amount of people will tell on those who don’t appear to be pulling their weight.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of us work in environments that judge you on your productivity or results rather than how long you were seen to be busy. My own anecdotal experiences from working in places were you are judged by your results based performance seemed to suggest that many people appeared to be content with their work, only putting in the extra time when really needed, and took much more breaks throughout the day, and generally in total spent more time actually working.

And there are a lot more research papers that come to a similar conclusion, in that those that took regular breaks were not only more productive but also more likely to be happier, healthier people.

Work Loads

When stopping to think about an issue or just to stare out the window it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone quip “Idle hands…” or “If you ain’t got enough to do, you can help me with this”, as if a 30 second decrease in visible activity would somehow unbalance the workplace.

And there’s the problem. It is difficult to quantify how productive someone is just by watching what they do. Everybody has different work styles, but a few things are common amongst most. One being that stress reduces peoples’ productivity and the quality of their work.

Another is that if people don’t feel secure in their position, they may resort to busy work that doesn’t really add any benefit to the business, but makes them look as if they are being productive. Some bosses have realised this and give their workers a lot to do so that they don’t have time to think about what they’re doing and so keep busy with boss sanctioned busyness.

Bosses aren’t the only ones to blame either. Some of us employees (myself included), have trouble organising and scheduling their workloads to what they can manage and as a result put themselves under unnecessary pressure, and without realising it, miss opportunities to take breaks throughout the day.

 

A Drag on Productivity

However, in case work demands are too high, employees tend to detach less from their work during off-job time and engage less in physical recovery activities. Health care managers should be aware that allocating too many work demands on their employees may be negative for their recovery and health. This may also have a destructive effect on their work performance and the quality of care.

DE JONGE, J. (2019). What makes a good work break? Off-job and on-job recovery as predictors of employee health. Industrial Health,58(2),142-152.

It’s not surprising that so many people are unknowingly exposing themselves to health risks as work demands increase, making it difficult for people to take a break (and some to actively skip breaks) in order to keep up to speed and not feel like a burden to their colleagues.

As this mode of working is increasingly becoming the norm, people are finding it difficult to switch off and relax after a long day.

One of the recovery problems is highly intuitive for many workers: difficulties to mentally disconnect from work. For instance, you may play with your children on the playground in the afternoon, talk with your partner about plans for the next weekend, or you may try to fall asleep after going to bed – but there is something in your mind that distracts you from these activities or impairs your ability to listen carefully: /thoughts about your work/. This experience of mental connectedness to one’s work through work-related thoughts during recovery periods has been described in the literature on stress and recover as low psychological detachment, work-related rumination, problem-solving pondering, and work reflection.

Wendsche J, de Bloom J, Syrek C, Vahle-Hinz T. Always on, never done? How the mind recovers after a stressful workday? German Journal of Human Resource Management. 2021;35(2):117-151. doi:10.1177/23970022211004598

By being always on for prolonged periods we increase the risk of adversely affecting our health in the short, medium and long term. Stress has been linked to:

  • Fear
  • Tension
  • Anxiety
  • An increase in cortisol
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • A decrease in the effectiveness of our immune system
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Clinical depression

And of course, the quality of our work as well as our productivity levels will also decrease. Working longer, appearing to be busy and not detaching from work robs us of our ability to work productively and robs us of our health.

Break Away

The Booster Break program was designed to interrupt prolonged sitting at the workplace. In a group context, interrupting prolonged sitting can be fun and enjoyable. Our previous research on the physical activity Booster Break showed that during a 6-month period, participants lost an average of 14 pounds (8% weight loss) and significantly increased their plasma high-density lipoprotein level from 50 to 57 (≥60 is optimal) . Both of these changes substantially reduce one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality and can counteract the effects of the sedentary nature of work life. The Booster Break experience can be a catalyst for adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Wendell C. Taylor, Kathryn E. King, Ross Shegog, Raheem J. Paxton, Gina L. Evans-Hudnall, David M. Rempel, Vincent Chen, Antronette K. Yancey, Booster Breaks in the workplace: participants’ perspectives on health-promoting work breaks, Health Education Research, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2013, Pages 414–425, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyt001

Although not the be all of work stress and productivity, taking regular breaks at work can help mitigate a lot of the stressors that we experience through the day and can work as a useful starting point for learning how to detach from work so that we can enjoy our free times better.

Micro Breaks

Whether you realise it or not, we all take micro breaks from time to time throughout the day. Whether it’s checking our smart phones, browsing to a non work related website, or simply just staring out the window, there are times throughout the day where we unconsciously step away from our work tasks and take a few seconds break to recover. This is normal as it would be almost impossible to focus completely on work alone throughout the day. When reading up on this topic for this article I found a term that sums up what a lot of people feel when they look at something other than work whilst at work, ’Screen Guilt’. It’s a good term but a bad thing to feel. Guilt tends to lead people to either over compensate for a perceived wrongdoing or just give up and not bother. Neither are good, so rather than feel guilt, learn to accept that you can only focus on one thing for a limited time, so when you find yourself doing something else without realising, know that you should have taken a break to help yourself recover.

Scheduling

A lot of time is wasted thinking about what you are going to do rather than getting on with it. Not that I’m saying just jump in and do something, but rather plan your day, week, month or year ahead of time and allocate time slots to get the work done. Although it doesn’t work for everyone in every situation, using processes like Kanban, Scrum or the Pomodoro Technique help to keep you on target to get things done without burning yourself out. I set 25-30 minute blocks to get work done. Once a time block is done, I take a 5-10 minute break away from my machine and either go for a walk, make a personal call, or crack jokes with colleagues (if they’re free of course) before getting back to my next block. Everyone is different and it can take a little while to get used to, but once you get used to it, it helps.

End of Play

After work’s done, go for a walk, or have something non work related to do before you head home. By doing this you give yourself a chance to unwind before you see you friends / family / partner. When I wasn’t working from home I’d walk to the train station rather than take a bus, or if I drove in I’d park further away than usual so that I’d have time to let my thoughts go wherever they wanted which helped me leave work at work. When working at home, I have a routine of closing the lid of my laptop (which would send it to sleep), get up from my desk and then either stare out the window or jig about a bit, and on the odd occasion go for a walk.

Review

Does taking regular breaks really increase productivity? I would have to say yes and as a bonus side effect, by taking regular breaks whilst at work you help decrease the risk of suffering from stress and stress related diseases making you feel more relaxed whilst working, which in turn helps with your productivity and self esteem.

“Improved focus at work. Improved relationships with co-workers. Helped me to fit some physical activity into a busy day. Motivated me to start thinking about my health more. I really enjoyed them – gave me a chance to get away from the desk, de-stress, and enjoy my co-workers. We even had a lot of laughs which was good for morale!”

Wendell C. Taylor, Kathryn E. King, Ross Shegog, Raheem J. Paxton, Gina L. Evans-Hudnall, David M. Rempel, Vincent Chen, Antronette K. Yancey, Booster Breaks in the workplace: participants’ perspectives on health-promoting work breaks, Health Education Research, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2013, Pages 414–425, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyt001

Afterword

The paradox of work stress in America is this: What we value most is inherently stressful. If we understand what we value and how it contributes to work stress, we can begin to create strategies and interventions that are culturally sound and effective, and we will be better able to interpret the findings of our scientific literature. Efforts that work against the cultural values will fail to reduce work stress, whereas efforts that work in concert with our cultural values will succeed.

Peterson, M., & Wilson, J. (2004). Work Stress in America. /International Journal of Stress Management,/ /11(2),/ 91-113.
Categories
Energy Exercise Productivity Safety

Time to Keep Moving

Keep on Moving, Don’t Stop

Keep Going…

If you work in an office environment, are studying, or driving for a living, the chances are that you spend a lot of time sitting down throughout the day. Although you don’t mean to it’s easily done.

How many times have you been so engrossed in what you are doing that you lose track of time and forget to eat or drink, and before you know it, it’s time to stop for the day?

There have been countless times where I’m just in the flow zone and I feel the need to get everything I need to do done before I lose momentum. During times like these it’s very difficult to take a break and I get annoyed when someone disturbs me.

I’ve found unfortunately, that this mode of working can take its toll on you, especially if you find yourself working like this for long periods of time. Eventually something has to give, and for me it’s either the quality of my work, or my energy levels crash to the point where it’s a struggle to get anything done.

Fortunately there are things that you can do to help you manage these periods and consistently keep the level of your productivity high without compromising its quality and your health.

Get up, stand up
Photo by @jesslharbin via Twenty20

In The Moment

A common complaint that I get about myself when I’m working is that I zone out and get tunnel vision, only focussing on the task that I’m doing at that moment at the cost of shutting everyone out until I’m ready.

I find it funny because apparently in school I was the opposite, always staring out the window or joking about. Perhaps in school my purpose for being there wasn’t so clear, but nowadays I have a clear defined purpose for my life and when I’m doing things that further that purpose my brain tunes in and focuses on the task at hand.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that when you’re in the flow it can be difficult to stop and give yourself a breather, especially when you lose track of time or have the pressure of a heavy workload and a tight deadline.

Work and study loads have progressively increased and many of us feel trapped. On the one hand we want to get the work over and done with, but at the same time wish we didn’t have to do it.

The stress of entertaining these opposing views can lead us to a point where we are doing busy work rather than getting the task at hand done. What’s busy work? Anything that makes us look busy but doesn’t help us in completing our work or study in any meaningful way.

This takes time and energy away from what needs to be done whilst keeping us sitting at our desks and making us feel tired and unmotivated.

Sitting Your Life Away

Sedentary behaviour, as distinct from a lack of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, is an emerging health risk behaviour for the development of chronic diseases. Examples of sedentary behaviour include sitting, watching television, using a computer, and driving a car.
Overall, we identified a compelling case for sitting reduction to be included in clinical preventive advice as a key component of ‘active living,’ where adults and children are encouraged to ‘move more and sit less’ across different settings and locations.

Bauman, A., Chau, J., Ding, D., & Bennie, J. (2013). Too Much Sitting and Cardio-Metabolic Risk: An Update of Epidemiological Evidence. /Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports,/ /7(4),/ 293-298.

Another factor that we also should take into account is that away from our work and study lives, we spend a lot of our recreational and travel time sitting too. People are spending more time than they realise sitting down without realising that they are putting their well being at risk.

I’m very guilty of this. My day job involves me having to be at my desk for most of the working day. On the commute to work I may work on my laptop or read a book, which necessitates that I sit down (most of the time). And then by the time I’ve got home and spent family time (talking, eating, helping with homework – all mostly done whilst sitting), I then finish off any work that I have left over for my personal interests or play a game (again, in front of a screen of some sort, and sitting down).

Although it can feel that we are being productive and making the most of our work/study/life balance, we may overlook the cumulative effects of spending so much time sitting in one place, especially when having to complete work or getting caught up in our down times.

People sit while performing occupational tasks, reading, eating, using technologies such as computers and entertainment devices, and commuting to and from their destinations. Research indicates that daily total sitting and prolonged uninterrupted sitting times are highest among older adolescents, male adults, all adults over age 60, and people who are overweight or obese.
And sedentary behaviour affects the health of people regardless of their race or ethnicity and across various socioeconomic backgrounds.

Eanes, L. (2018). CE: Too Much Sitting: A Newly Recognized Health Risk. /AJN: American Journal of Nursing,/ /118(9),/ 26-34.

What’s concerning is that sedentary behavioural research seems to indicate that by not taking regular breaks and sitting uninterrupted for long periods of time increases the risks of:

  • Type2 diabetes (22%)
  • Metabolic syndrome (39%)
  • Colon cancer (8%)
  • Endometrial cancer (10%)
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease

And this is regardless of how much exercise you do during the day. The research suggest that if you sit for more than 30 minutes without taking a moving break, or doing some form of exercise for at least 5 minutes, then you still increase the risk of negatively affecting your health!

Standup and Take Action

Thankfully, the solution is pretty straight forward for those of us who sit at desks for most of the day, just stand up for 5 minutes every 20-30 minutes you sit down. If you’re a driver it’s a bit more difficult, but you can reverse some of the ill effects of sitting down if you stand and move around every 60 minutes.

Linda Eanes in the American Journal of Nursing (118.9) 2018, outlined a few suggestions to help us take action immediately:

  • Use a standing desk.
  • Take frequent standing or walking breaks (standing or walking for five minutes for every 30 minutes of sitting, for example).
  • Stand when talking on a cell phone.
  • Reduce total daily television viewing time by standing or walking during commercial breaks.
  • Engage in hobbies that involve some physical activity.
  • Use social networks for self-report and supportive feedback.
  • Use computer software or smartphone apps that offer prompts to take brief physical activity breaks.
  • Wear physical activity monitors.

source: Eanes, L. (2018). CE: Too Much Sitting: A Newly Recognised Health Risk. /AJN: American Journal of Nursing, 118(9), 26-34.

Personally I’ve found my Apple Watch very helpful in this regard. The watch has a built in Activity app that prompts you to stand and do a set amount of exercise (take that as moving about) daily. You can set your goals and away you go. The stand goal only allows you set goals in hours, but its a good place to begin. If you have an Apple Watch, Tim Brookes wrote a very good How-To Geek guide on how to set you Activity goals, which you can find here.

In conjunction with Activity, I also use V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert (our own Apple Watch app). Because V-CAF monitors your tiredness levels and alerts you when you are tired, I use it as my optimal break alerter. Whenever I get a notification that my alertness levels are dropping, I get up and go for a walk or a stretch. That way I know that I’m not just powering through to get things done, and I keep the quality of my work high and my health on point.

Review

Most of us know that we shouldn’t be so sedentary, but our modern lifestyles tend to promote and reward sitting down, (especially for long periods of time).

  • Most of us sit too much and need to move around more both at home and whilst working.
  • After sitting for 30 minutes take a 5 minute break where you stand up, walk around or do some other form of physical activity.
  • Have hobbies that involve physical activity.
  • Track you activity levels by using wearable gadgets or your smartphone.

So don’t forget, as Soul II Soul said “Keep On Moving’”

Soul II Soul – Keep On Movin’ (Official Video)

Afterword

When you have decided that a thing ought to be done, and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavourable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?

Epictetus, The Enchiridion v35
Categories
Addiction Caffeine Caffeine Addiction Sleep Tiredness

Don’t Forget the Essentials

Back to Basics

Sleep well, Eat well

Feeling tired, lethargic or run down? Unable to concentrate or focus as well as you need to? We all have periods when we feel that we aren’t firing on all cylinders, and for many the easy common sense way to overcome that lag in our energy is to have a coffee or to consume another caffeinated food, drink or pill.

Yep, it appears to work quickly and efficiently in the short term, but what about longer term? There is a lot of conflicting data in the public sphere that on the one hand espouses the benefits of drinking coffee and that caffeine can help combat diseases like dementia:

In conclusion, coffee/caffeine consumption is associated with a decreased risk of T2DM (type 2 diabetes) and possibly also with a decreased dementia risk. At present we cannot be certain that these associations are causal…
It should be acknowledged that caffeine does appear to have several properties that warrant further investigations in this field.

Biessels, G. (2010). Caffeine, Diabetes, Cognition, and Dementia. /Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease,/ /20(0),/ 143-150.

Whereas other reports express concern with regards to the increasing amounts of caffeine that are being consumed:

A rowing number of scientific publications, popular media reports, and elected officials openly question the safety of some ED (energy drink) products. Concern largely stem from the seemingly high caffeine content of these beverages, the unknown adverse health consequences of the various herbal additives (either alone or in combination with caffeine), and the prevalence of consumer-reported adverse side effects.

Johnson, L.A., Foster, .D., & McDowell, J.C. (2014). Energy Drinks: Review of Performance Benefits, Health Concerns, and Use by Military Personnel. Military Medicine,179(4)

Whether you drink coffee or consume caffeine or you actively avoid caffeine at all costs, it’s good sometimes to go back to basics and figure out how to deal with tiredness or a perceived lack of ability to concentrate.

The Essentials - Don't Forget Them
Photo by @jesslharbin via Twenty20

Tiredness, Lack of Focus

Caffeine is the most consumed stimulant on the planet. As a result, it’s no surprise that many need a coffee within the first twenty minutes of getting out of bed to help give them their first boost to get the day going.

Caffeine confers small but well-established improvements in attention, alertness and physical athletic performance for up to 60 minutes of following a dose of 3 to 6 mg/kg of body mass.
Effects are optimised in individuals who abstain from caffeine 7 days before use.

Johnson, L.A., Foster, .D., & McDowell, J.C. (2014). Energy Drinks: Review of Performance Benefits, Health Concerns, and Use by Military Personnel. Military Medicine,179(4)

It’s no wonder why people consume so much coffee and caffeinated sodas. For most it’s a no brainer, a safe quick win, besides, everyone does it. We usually consume caffeine in small doses so it appears that the dangers are limited.

As a result, now more than ever, it’s easier for us to put in long hours working or studying and still achieve high levels of concentration and productivity, whilst avoiding the tiredness and fatigue that we would experience if we didn’t consume caffeine. Many colleagues that I’ve worked with found it odd that I didn’t drink coffee. One in particular asked how I was able to focus, because without coffee, they found it almost impossible.

Others would comment that the fact that I took regular breaks and sometimes would go for a snooze away from my desk, proved that I needed to drink coffee and that I was punishing myself for no good reason.

 

No Quick Fixes

What I’ve found over the years, whilst both consuming and abstaining from caffeine, is how dependent I and others are on caffeine to help cover our shortcomings in other areas of our lives (sleep being the primary one).

There is no doubt about this fact. For the majority of people that consume caffeine in its many various forms, most don’t realise that they are addicted to it. For example, those people that I mentioned earlier that couldn’t start the day without drinking a coffee, are probably suffering from the withdrawal effects of caffeine, and their early morning fix is alleviating their withdrawal symptoms.

It happened with me a long time ago when I friend said that I should go easy on the coffee and caffeine pills whilst I was studying. I thought I could stop whenever I wanted, but when I tried, I felt terrible. At first I put it down to the fact that I was probably overworked and stressed, and had probably run myself down. It was only when I found myself unconsciously drinking a cola, and feeling much better, (my symptoms eased almost immediately), that I realised that I was hooked.

On withdrawal, 27 subjects reported tiredness and 18 developed headache. Electroencephalograph, skin conductance and blood pressure changes were apparent. Sleep improved on withdrawal but subjects reported feeling less alert and more tired. The higher the usual caffeine intake, the greater the unpleasant feelings on withdrawal and the more marked the reversal of feelings on resumption.

Lader, M., Cardwell, C., Shine, P., & Scott, N. (2016). Caffeine withdrawal symptoms and rate of metabolism: . Journal of Psychopharmacology,10(2),110-118.

A simple indicator to check whether you are addicted to caffeine or not is to go without any caffeine for a month and see if you experience any of the following within the first week of your abstinence:

  • Decreased energy/activeness
  • Decreased alertness/attentivemess
  • Tiredness/fatigue
  • Drowsiness/sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Foggy/not clearheaded
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety/nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Decreased contentedness/well-being
  • Nausea/vomiting/upset stomach
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Muscle pain/stiffness
    source: Ozsungur, S., Brenner, D., & El-Sohemy, A. (2009). Fourteen well-described caffeine withdrawal symptoms factor into three clusters. Psychopharmacology,201(4), 541-548.

What’s interesting is that many of the withdrawal symptoms are reasons people have for consuming caffeine. In the report “Fourteen well described caffeine withdrawal symptoms factor into three clusters”, it found that those that regularly consumed larger amounts of caffeine suffered the most from the withdrawal symptoms, and were the quickest to feel back to normal once they resumed consuming caffeine.

Although people are consuming caffeine to help boost their concentration and reduce tiredness, the evidence suggests that addicted caffeine users need increasing amounts of caffeine to reduce the withdrawal symptoms that they’re unaware they are suffering from.

The Essentials

Tiredness, fatigue and the inability to concentrate are your body’s way of warning you that something isn’t right and that you should slow down. First and foremost seek qualified medical advice from your general practitioner or doctor if you’ve been suffering from any of the above, (it may be a sign of a more serious health issue).

Caffeine effectively gets between you and your body’s messaging system to let you know that you need to rest or stop what you are doing. Tiredness can be reduced by getting enough quality sleep. The key here is quality as well as quantity. That means:

  • Get 7 – 9 hours of good quality sleep
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol (if you have caffeine, stop consuming after mid day).
  • Keep away from computers and smart phones before going to bed. Read books instead. Smartphones and computers give off blue light that reduces the level of melatonin that your body produces before you go to bed. If you want to sleep well you need higher levels of melatonin. Apps like f.lux can be installed on your computers and smart phones so as to counter this effect.
  • Reduce or keep the naps that you have throughout the day to no more than 20 minutes. And no napping past 5 pm.
  • Eat whole foods and exercise more. Exercise is a quick win that will improve the quality of your sleep immediately. A 20 minute walk has been proven to be beneficial in increasing your sleep quality.

Whilst working or studying:

  • Take regular breaks away from your desk
  • Replace coffee breaks with water breaks and/or light exercise or stretching breaks
  • Organise yourself to tackle your more difficult tasks when you are most awake

Review

Caffeine does work in making us feel more energised, alert and productive. However, by masking how tired we really are we may just be kicking the can down the road rather than just addressing the issues that affect our attentiveness and wakefulness.

By avoiding dealing with the underlying issues we may be unnecessarily risking addiction and eventually decreased performance.

To make matters worse, the amount of caffeine we consume in a day may be more than we realise as caffeine is found in an increasing amount of food and beverages.

So, if we feel tired and unable to focus, get more rest, sleep, eat better, exercise more and make all of these points our priority daily habits.

Afterword

During sleep deprivation, moderate doses of caffeine (200 mg) have restored cognitive performance on tasks involving visual vigilance, learning, and memory.
Unfortunately, repeated use of stimulants such as caffeine is often associated with withdrawal effects once the stimulant is no longer active in the system.
Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal commonly include headache, fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, and foggy thinking. Acute caffeine withdrawal also has interfered with cognitive functions such as focused attention and reasoning.

Killgore, W., Kahn-Greene, E., Killgore, D., Kamimori, G., & Balkin, T. (2016). Effects of Acute Caffeine Withdrawal on Short Category Test Performance in Sleep-Deprived Individuals: . Perceptual and Motor Skills,105(3_suppl), 1265-1274.
Categories
Alert Energy Focus Productivity

Know the Optimal Time to Take a Break

Make Time For Yourself

You Deserve It…

The other day I was talking to a colleague about how currently there seems to be so much more to do. We went back and forth with anecdotes that confirmed how we felt and just as I felt my motivation spiralling downwards, my colleague happily exclaimed how thankful that he was going to be on holiday for two weeks.

With glee in his voice he told me to “enjoy holding the fort”, and wished me luck! Unfortunately for me, I still had two months to wait before my holiday, and cursed myself for not booking it sooner. Sulking looking at my screen I thought about the time that I don’t spend prioritising breaks that suit me when I work, particularly during the work day and both planned and unplanned vacations.

I scolded myself for letting things get to this point and then realised that lately I hadn’t been following my own advice, and became more focused on the amount of work rather than organising the work around the time that I had to complete it!

I stopped sulking and started to dig through my journal and past articles that I’d posted to see what I could do to get myself back in balance.

Know the optimal time to take a break
Photo by @johnlmc via Twenty20

Unbalanced Work

Work life balance is a mantra that has been espoused by the corporate world for a while now. Many companies make a point of letting potential new recruits know that they actively encourage and support a more healthy balance between private and work life.

In my time working with various institutions, I’ve had more than my fair share of emails, bulletins and workshops to help guide me to that elusive goal of a perfectly balanced professional and family life. Managers and team leads have encouraged me to take time off, and to be fair, some have been really supportive and understanding.

So why is it that with all this encouragement and support, that people find themselves feeling overloaded and overworked?

Possible reasons include:

  • Not wanting to let your colleagues, team or company down
  • Increasing workloads
  • Overly demanding bosses/managers
  • Bullying
  • and stress

Whatever the cause, the end result is that you can skip daily breaks and vacations for the “greater good” of the project or deadline. And when you are under pressure to get things done, work breaks can be easily overlooked.

 

No Play, Low Pay

We live in a time when professionals take fewer vacations than ever before and businesses are generally leaner, tending toward high productivity at the expense of flexibility. It’s hard to find a “convenient” time to get away, and when you do the stress of re-entry and catching up can wear you back down in almost no time.

Americans seem to be among the worst of professional workers around the world for leaving hard-earned vacation time on the table. Depending on which one of the many surveys you can read on this subject, something like 50% of American workers use less than their allotted vacation time…
Most of those same surveys also cite higher stress levels for people who do not take time off, and worse, some indicate that long-term career prospects are worse for people who cannot pull themselves away from the office or lab.

Atwood, S. (2015). Take a Break ‐ You Deserve It. Information Display, 31(4), 2-35.

I once worked at a firm where it was expected that you worked long days (12 – 16 hours) and weekends continuously for months. Knowing what I know now, I realise that this way of working was bordering on the cruel and abusive, but to keep us working and motivated we were told that we were the elites in our industry, the go getters, and by enduring work like that, were destined to be industry leaders in our fields.

Life was a blur. I couldn’t think clearly and as a result made more mistakes than necessary. This had knock on effects for the rest of the team, so I felt guilty and would work longer to help fix the mistakes that were caused by the tiredness I felt because of the long hours that we were working. And so it went on.

That was an extreme case but many people figure that productive work equals long hours, but in fact the opposite is true. The longer the hours you work, the more likely you are to make errors and reduce the quality of your work.

Furthermore, you open yourself up to stress and burn-out, which in their early phases, rather than impress your colleagues and bosses, can make them see you as incapable, lazy or needy. Eventually this can lead you to being overlooked for promotion and could even cost you your job (as well as your health and well being).

Some of the signs that you may be heading towards burnout include:

  • Not going to work or not getting out of bed
  • Losing interest in work that used to be exciting and interesting
  • Not meeting your basic needs – eating, exercising and family time
  • Making more mistakes than usual at work
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Being short tempered, intolerant or overly sensitive with colleagues
  • Catching illnesses more often
  • Not sleeping well
  • Feelings of low confidence

    source: Powell, K. (2017). Work–life balance: Break or burn out. Nature, 545(7654), 375-377.

Regular Breaks

A break from work is a period in the course of a workday during which employees shift their attention away from current tasks. A micro-break is a short break from work that lasts a few minutes and that is informal and less structured than, for example, a lunch break.

Employees initiate a micro-break themselves or deliberately decide to join a micro-break initiated by others.

Micro-breaks can encompass various kinds of activities, including, for example looking out the window, checking in with a favourite colleague, or going for a short walk.

Bosch, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2019). Should I Take a Break? A Daily Reconstruction Study on Predicting Micro-Breaks at Work. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(4), 378-388.

When going over my old notes about taking breaks I found that the most important thing about them, was to actually take them. In the past I’ve set up routines and work processes like using the Pomodoro or Kanban techniques where I work in 25 minute blocks with a 3 to 5 minute break between blocks. Although it works, when I’m really busy I sometimes forget to set the timer or turn the break alarms off without going on a break!

This is a big no no, and I was guilty of doing that more often than not. To get around that issue I now use our app V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert. It’s an Apple Watch app that is simple to use. I just press the V-CAF icon on my Apple Watch, choose the icon which best captures how I’m feeling and it starts monitoring my tiredness levels ready to notify me when my alertness decreases. I use it as my reminder to go for a break, which nowadays is a mixture between going for a quick walk outside, stretching and moving around, or having a quick 10-20 minute nap away from my desk.

As a consultant, I found it very difficult to take holidays as it meant that I would not only have to catch up with all the work that wasn’t being done whilst I was away, I also didn’t get paid for my vacations. To get around this I soon learnt that I needed to charge enough to cover my vacation times and book my vacations well in advance, so that I could organise my work around them.

If you’re an employee, don’t leave it until you feel like you can’t work another day, plan realistically for the times that suits you (and your family, if that’s a concern) best. And whilst on vacation, cut all ties with your place of work. That means, no looking at emails, or social media and taking calls. Be unreachable. Recently a colleague of mine was on holiday and he was called back in for an emergency in the office. Luckily for the bosses he was still in the country, unlucky for my friend, he had to explain to his wife and family why he was going back into work during their holiday (not a nice situation, I can tell you). Let me just say, nobody can reach him when he’s on holiday or over the weekend since that incident!

As a side benefit of taking regular breaks you’ll get a better sense of the best times that you work. During your workdays, plan your most difficult tasks around the times when you are most alert and productive, and routine work that doesn’t take too much brain power for when you’re less alert.

Review

Ultimately, you have to listen to what your body is telling you and not force yourself to work longer than is optimal for you and your productivity.

It won’t be easy to just change everything all at once, so take small steps and progressively move towards achieving a work-life balance that suits your health and wellbeing best.

Afterword

A micro-brake offers individuals the possibility to reward themselves with an activity they like, such as texting with their friends or enjoying their favourite tea. Because activities individuals are fond of have a remunerating character, micro-breaks possess the potential to provide small but immediate rewards during the workday.
Such rewards may help recover affective-motivational resources that were depleted while working.

Bosch, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2019). Should I Take a Break? A Daily Reconstruction Study on Predicting Micro-Breaks at Work. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(4), 378-388.
Categories
Addiction Caffeine Caffeine Addiction Caffeine Alternative Energy Fatigue Headaches Productivity Side Effects Sleep Sleepiness Staying Awake

Is Now The Right Time To Give Up Coffee?

Too Costly To Your Health

It’s the price your willing to pay that counts…

We live in a connected world. The saying goes “when America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold”, (but actually the original saying was “when France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold”). Replace “America” (or France) with any leading nation or person in a given field and you have the current situation of the world.

Whether it be semi conductors, lumber or facial mask shortages, we are all learning just how connected we truly are. Which brings us to Brazil and coffee. Brazil represents one third of the world’s coffee production, making the country the undisputed coffee production world leader.

Unfortunately, Brazil in 2021 has had some challenging issues to deal with, each of them having an effect on the production and distribution of coffee. Brazil has been suffering through a drought which has decreased crop production, whilst at the same time due to the pandemic, shipping ports have been congested (especially in the US), causing US coffee stockpiles to shrink to their lowest levels in at least six years!

The implications for coffee drinkers is that the price of their favourite beverage is about to increase significantly, whilst the quality and quantity of their favourite brands decrease. For those struggling to give up caffeine or wanting to break their coffee addiction, the recent and future price increases may just help motivate them to start.

The Price to Pay

Coffee seems to fuel the world. The wonder drink is seen by some as being responsible for a majority of the technological and scientific discoveries of the Western World, but in all truth it’s the caffeine that is in coffee that is responsible.

Caffeine and coffee go hand in hand. Researchers have found that the majority of adults in the USA admit to consuming a caffeinated drink at least daily. And why not? It’s been proven time and again that caffeine improves alertness and performance, and it appears to counter feelings of fatigue and tiredness. And lately there have been an increasing amount of studies that show the numerous health benefits of drinking coffee and caffeine such as helping to increase fat loss and helping to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

Also, with the rise in popularity and profitability of coffee shops and franchises, the global coffee shop market is set to be worth $237.6 billion by 2025 (Global Coffee Shops Market to be Worth $237.6 Billion by), coffee’s importance doesn’t look like it is going to diminish any time soon.

So with the recent drought in Brazil and supply chain disruptions, it’s fair to say that the average price of a cup of coffee will be increasing.

Coffee prices increased in March and global coffee consumption is projected to rise this year, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

Americans were reported to be drinking “more coffee than ever,” according to a March 2020 report by the National Coffee Association. The pandemic led to “record coffee consumption at home, with 85 percent of coffee drinkers having at least one cup at home,” according to the NCA’s Spring 2021 National Coffee Data Trends (NCDT) survey.

Soo Kim, Newsweek, source: Prices of Coffee, Wine, Toilet Paper and More Set to Rise in Post COVID-19 Era

Although the rise in price may not deter most people from drinking coffee, now may be as good a time as any to review why we drink coffee (and hence caffeine), and break any dependencies that we may have with the duo.

 

Cost of Benefits

Caffeine exacerbates sleep disorders, according to a study reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Some coffee drinkers, however, claim that their sleep is as restful as ever, regardless of their caffeine consumption. And without statistical evidence, who can refute their testimony? While it is obvious that caffeine affects all of us in different ways, it is equally important to note that we often do not know how it affects our system and cannot evaluate its effects on us while we sleep.

Another researcher noted that coffee consumption not only substantially delays the onset of sleep, but also diminishes the quality of sleep. Significantly more body movement was noted in heavy coffee consumers, and the quality of their sleep was substantially diminished.

Kushner, Marina. The Truth About Coffee (p. 69). SCR, Inc.

Whilst there are many of us that like the taste and effect that coffee has on us, there is no getting away from the fact that it’s main ingredient, caffeine, can be an addictive substance. Many coffee consumers are unaware of their addiction and believe that they can go a few days without any, but find that they never get round to their coffee abstinence, or if they do unintentionally find themselves consuming caffeine in another form.

A little while ago I posted a link on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram about two couples that tried to give up coffee for a month who thought that it would be easy, but found that they had underestimated just how addicted to coffee and caffeine they were, (We Quit Caffeine for a Month, Here’s What Happened). They suffered from all the classic withdrawal symptoms that many people experience and gradually started to come to the realisation that they needed their daily fix.

To be fair, they did start to reduce their caffeine consumption leading up to the challenge and even then they found themselves feeling:

  • More tired than usual
  • Irritated
  • suffering from headaches

And in addition to the list above, during the challenge they found themselves:

  • Unable to think straight
  • Craving coffee and caffeine
  • Relapsing back to coffee
  • Being in denial about their caffeine addiction

By the end of the challenge WheezyWaiter, (the owners of the YouTube channel that initiated the challenge), were more than relieved to get back to drinking coffee and found that they had more energy than they did during their abstinence, and didn’t feel that there sleep improved during the challenge compared to how they sleep now.

The researchers studied sleep patterns of medical students and found that many of them claimed that coffee did not disturb their sleep even when objective observations confirmed that it did. The researchers said that this denial reinforces the impression that coffee drinkers simply do not attribute undesirable clinical symptoms to their coffee intake.

This situation illuminates one of the insidious aspects of coffee addiction: we are often unaware of how it affects us.

Kushner, Marina. The Truth About Coffee (p. 69). SCR, Inc.

Unfortunately it seems that WheezyWaiter weren’t aware that caffeine withdrawal symptoms can last for weeks for some people, and that although consuming caffeine relieves those symptoms and make it seem that coffee actually helps them feel better, it can eventually lead to an increase in tolerance to the effects of caffeine, making it more than likely that they will consume more (in fact, they said that at the end of the challenge, they found that their coffee works better now, which may indicate that they had a very high tolerance before starting the challenge, and have effectively reset their tolerance levels lower).

I would suggest that WheezyWaiter should be cautious from this point on with regards to their coffee consumption, because it’s at higher levels of consumption that we start to increase the risk that we expose ourselves to some of the more harmful effects of caffeine.

Although it has many health benefits and has long been used by people for its stimulating effects, it also comes with various health hazards. Caffeine consumption is linked to the risk of developing coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, gastritis, anaemia and still births. Other adverse effects of caffeine include sleep deprivation, increased heart rate and blood pressure, central nervous system disorders, vasodilation, trembling, seizures, urticaria, headaches, increased body temperature and behavioural changes. In people consuming caffeine on regular basis, it has been found that the cessation of caffeine results in many unfavourable changes such as increased occurrence of headaches, increased drowsiness and fatigue as well as lowered alertness. The various ill-effects of excessive caffeine consumption include addiction, hormone-related cancers, increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, anxiety, insomnia, intoxication and nutrient malabsorption. It affects bones by decreasing calcium absorption in the human small intestine. It is also known to affect gastrointestinal, respiratory and reproductive health.

Kumar, V., Kaur, J., Panghal, A., Kaur, S., & Handa, V. (2018). Caffeine: a boon or bane. /Nutrition & Food Science,/ /48(1),/ 61-75.

Alternatives

The current and impending rise in price for a cup of coffee and knowing the harmful effects of over consuming caffeine, coupled with supply chain failures, it seems to me that now would be a good time to either cut down on the amount of coffee we consume or give it up all together.

With that in mind here are some things that we can do help ease the pain of giving up coffee (or just reducing the amount we consume).

For tiredness and energy:

  • Get your 7-9 hours of good quality sleep regularly
  • Eat nutrient rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass fed meats, whole milk etc
  • Avoid or reduce the amount of processed foods and snacks that you consume throughout the day
  • Take regular exercise (like a 20 minute walk a day, or regular breaks during the day where you move more than you are now).
  • Meditate regularly (and it doesn’t have to be too long, for example sitting in a chair closing your eyes and deep breathing for a couple of minutes can be very beneficial).

For concentration and productivity:

  • All of the above mentioned points
  • Plan your days and weeks in advance. Knowing what you need to do beforehand helps reduce the stress of trying to do things ad hoc
  • Take regular breaks whilst working, studying or concentrating. 25 – 45 minute blocks are usually enough for your brain to stay active and focused on your tasks
  • Limit your coffee intake to only once a day, and use it for your most difficult tasks, no later than 12 in the afternoon, but ideally, go without, or at least work towards going without (take small steps).

Review

I was in denial for a long time about my own coffee addiction, but when I suffered a bad case of the jitters, I had to face up to the fact that I had caffeine addiction problem.

It can be hard to motivate yourself to get through the withdrawal symptoms even if you have a support network in place (watch the WheezyWaiter YouTube video to see what I’m talking about); but I’ve found that just by knowing why you are doing something, you increase the chances of sticking through the hard times and overcoming any adversity.

If you found yourself getting upset about the recent coffee price increases and shortages that will be manifesting themselves shortly (if not already), maybe you should try quitting coffee for a short while.

What have you got to lose?

Afterword

There are many physiological effects of caffeine on respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive and central nervous systems. It has a positive effect in reducing the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and liver injury and, at the same time, in improving mood, psychomotor performance and immune response. On the other hand, the negative effects of caffeine include addiction, cancer, heart diseases, insomnia, gastrointestinal disturbances and intoxication. As caffeine, when taken in a large amount, is harmful… its concentration should not exceed set limits.

Kumar, V., Kaur, J., Panghal, A., Kaur, S., & Handa, V. (2018). Caffeine: a boon or bane. /Nutrition & Food Science,/ /48(1),/ 61-75.