Categories
Anxiety Exercise Fatigue Focus Lethargy Productivity Staying Awake Tension Tiredness

Am I Burnt Out?

Sleepwalking into Burnout

Wake up and pay attention…

Lately there have been many changes across the board in my life that have left me feeling a bit flat and demotivated. Tasks that I used to find straight forward now seem to take a huge amount of effort to even get started.

I started think that it was down to the weather or being a bit run down, but this has gone on for weeks. Yes I get things done, but there was no feeling there; in effect I was just going through the motions.

As time went on I felt that things were getting serious and started to investigate whether I was burnt out.

General Malaise

Modern lifestyle and work habits are known stressors that if left unchecked can have a negative impact on our ability to cope with daily challenges. We can feel overwhelmed with the amount of tasks and responsibilities that we have to face.

An issue that during the course of my investigation that repeatedly came up was that stressful situations like these can lead to the feeling that we have no control over what is happening to us. It can seem that no matter how hard we try our efforts don’t seem to make a substantial difference to our perception of how much progress that we are making.

Feeling as if we are not making any real substantial progress can affect our self worth and may trigger feelings of depression, demotivation, low self esteem and a lack of optimism. Not exactly the fuel for contentment and improved self worth!

Tell Tale Signs

It appears that the longer these feelings are not kept in check the worse they become. It is amazing how many of the symptoms are very similar to not getting enough good quality sleep (and I’m sure there’s a link there, but that’s for another time).

Burnout is quite different and in some ways is the opposite end of the spectrum – while a person responds too much when they are stressed, burnout is too little. Burnout can often develop if a person has been under stress for a prolonged period and is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It is a sense of powerlessness and people may feel there is nothing they can do about their situation or that there is maybe no point. Some people describe burnout as being an upstream depression (some similar symptoms).

source: Stress and Burnout, Stress and Burnout

I found a lot of good information about what burnout is after the fact, but what are the specific symptoms that I should be looking for to see if I indeed was suffering from burnout ? I narrowed it down to the following:

  • Exhaustion – Engaging in pointless and/or non beneficial tasks can make you feel exhausted.
  • Indifference – Not having much feeling or caring about the activities that you undertake ( and this can also include indifference to people related to the activity too).
  • Reduced Productivity – Whether personal or career based, a lack of pride in what you are doing and/or reduced self esteem.

It may also help you to know the risk factors that may lead to burnout so that you can take steps to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.

Individual Risk Factors

  • Having poor self-esteem
  • Maladaptive coping mechanisms
  • Younger adults with an idealistic worldview
  • Unrealistically high expectations
  • Having financial issues

Organisational Risk Factors

  • Heavy workloads
  • Conflicts with coworkers
  • Diminished resources
  • Lack of control or input
  • Effort-reward imbalance
  • Understaffing
  • Rapid institutional changes

source: American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine

Positive Strategies

A lot of the research papers and websites that I’ve read through suggest that you should “change your response to events/situations, which will make us feel better”, which while working for some, is easier said than done for me (although I have tried in the past , it is an ongoing process).

Seeking counselling is also another approach which can be very beneficial, especially if you suspect that you’ve been suffering from burnout for a while (it helps to talk).

I’ve found what’s been useful for me is to sleep better and exercise. Again, it seems to be the simplest thing to do and I get the rewards a lot quicker. During this period of feeling burnt out, I found that I wasn’t as physically active as I have been, and in particular not exercising as much after work (I prefer to exercise in the morning). It turns out that by doing some sort of physical activity in the evening, you reduce the chances of suffering from burnout!

The key finding of the present study is that among employees with high stress levels, those who engage in more leisure-time physical activity report lower burnout symptoms than their less active counterparts. This finding suggests that physical activity could be more than a simple pastime; it could also have the potential to help people to cope successfully with the stress experienced at work.

Gerber, M., Schilling, R., Colledge, F., Ludyga, S., Pühse, U., & Brand, S. (2020). More Than a Simple Pastime? The Potential of Physical Activity to Moderate the Relationship Between Occupational Stress and Burnout Symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(1), 53-64.

Review

So did I change what I was doing and exercise more? Yes. And was I burnt out? I don’t think so. Although I learnt a lot more about work related stress, I also understood my life related stressors better and made changes accordingly.

For me exercise and sleep helped get me back on track, and although they are basic priorities that everyone should be mindful of (which I usually am), I let them slide and didn’t notice until it started to affect my general attitude towards life, family and work.

Afterword

“Low levels of leisure-time physical activity are associated with more burnout symptoms and more perceived occupational stress. Most importantly, the relationship between physical activity and burnout symptoms is especially strong among participants who perceive high occupational stress.”

Gerber, M., Schilling, R., Colledge, F., Ludyga, S., Pühse, U., & Brand, S. (2020). More Than a Simple Pastime? The Potential of Physical Activity to Moderate the Relationship Between Occupational Stress and Burnout Symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(1), 53-64.

Categories
Caffeine Caffeine Alternative Productivity Uncategorized

How The Increase In Coffee Prices May Be A Blessing In Disguise

Reduce The Cost to Your Well Being

Profit by going without…

The other day I went to meet a friend at the local branch of a world famous coffee chain and was surprised to see the cost of a cup of coffee. He told me that the price has been rising throughout the year and asked if I hadn’t noticed that things in general were up?

Truth be told I did notice. Last post I mention about having to change hosts and one of the reasons why was that I was trying to lock in the price of hosting by paying in advance because all price plans were increasing!

And it’s not only hosting and electrical goods. Everything seems to be going up pretty quickly! Anyway I did a little digging around to find out why the cost of coffee in particular is rising and found out some interesting facts about what is going on.

The Weather

Brazil is the worlds largest producer of coffee. Unfortunately they have experienced some weather challenges this year which will affect next year’s crop (as they are already harvesting 2021/22 crop).

Frost this year and drought last year have contributed to reducing the crop size of Arabica coffee. And if that wasn’t enough, locust swarms in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been destroying coffee and other crops, putting pressure on worldwide supply at a time when demand is increasing.

The result is that this years crop has fallen short of expectations and the knock on effect is that the industrial coffee buyers have been placing bulk orders early (trying to lock in todays prices), which has in turn pushed up the price for all coffee imports for this year and next.

With the coffee supply chain already under pressure and consumer demand remaining high, the recent severe weather that damaged Brazil’s crop could spell more trouble for coffee prices and food manufacturers that source large amounts of beans used to make the beverage.

As inflation fears ripple throughout the food industry, a number of CPGs are announcing price hikes to offset the increased costs in their supply chain. Many coffee-dependent companies are among those in the mix.

source: Surge in coffee prices to a multi-year high could impact major CPGs, Food Dive, July 29, 2021, Lauren Manning, Surge in coffee prices to a multi-year high could impact major CPGs | Food Dive

 

Supply Chains

The logistics of getting the coffee beans to the roasters and then to the end users is quite complex. There are many moving parts involving thousands of people worldwide.

So with the recent restrictions and bottlenecks that have built up throughout 2021 we are now experiencing supply chain disruptions that are hitting the coffee industry quite hard.

According to reports, a longstanding imbalance of shipping containers around the world is spiking transportation costs for coffee, which could end up spiking the cost of coffee for end consumers.

“It is a systemic issue. It is now more expensive than in the last five to 10 years to bring coffee to the consumer.”

source: Coffee prices soaring due to “systemic” coronavirus supply chain disruptions, Grocery.News, March 10, 2021, Ethan Huff, Coffee prices soaring due to “systemic” coronavirus supply chain disruptions

As with the coffee beans themselves, companies are trying to lock in prices now as it is uncertain if supplies can be guaranteed and supply routes will be open. The situation has lead to a reduction of US coffee stockpiles which may lead to supply not being able to meet demand.

For now, many merchants are trying to hold the line on price increases as they work to lure customers back to cafes and restaurants. There’s steady growth in coffee, though the out-of-home segment could take two to three years to return to pre-Covid levels, according to David Rennie, head of Nestle SA’s coffee brands.

source: The World Is Facing a Coffee Deficit in Supply Chain ‘Nightmare’ – Bloomberg, Bloomberg, 23 March, 2021, Marvin G Perez, Fabian Batista, Manisha Jha

Alternative Points of View

It looks like the price of coffee will continue rising for the next few years, which isn’t great if you enjoy coffee or are dependant on it! Unfortunate as it is, if you’ve been thinking about getting rid of your coffee dependancy, now might be as good a time as any to try.

A high percentage of people get their daily caffeine fix via coffee, and although caffeine doesn’t cause too much harm in moderation, many people over caffeinate themselves without realising it which could be negatively effecting their sleep at night and their productivity during the day.

By slowly reducing the amount of caffeine you consume each day you can start to feel the benefits of your body adjusting back to being more in line with its natural circadian rhythm; which can help you have a more refreshing and deeper sleep cycle which in turn will help you think more clearly throughout the day, and naturally boost you energy levels to where they should be.

The money that you save from buying coffee could be used elsewhere, or if you can’t go without coffee, be used to buy as much as you can for storage, just like the industrial users and companies are.

Review

The rising cost of coffee and caffeine doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. As of this writing there are fears that the lock downs and restrictions will be put back in place which would eventually lead to shortages and delays in you being able to buy and consume coffee.

If you love coffee, buy in bulk like the companies do and keep it in storage. Alternatively, you can use this time as a chance to break your caffeine dependancy and profit from the savings that you will make.

Either way it’s up to you how you play this, so do what works best for you .

Afterword

“Every calamity is a spur and a valuable hint.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Categories
Focus Productivity Uncategorized

How To Recover When You Are Down

Pay Attention to the Signs You’re Given

Slow down, take it easy…

Hello all! It’s been six weeks since I got a chance to write a blog post. A lot has been happening over here @ V-CAF and we would like to apologise for not posting.

This post is going to be a little different but hopefully still useful and relevant to you. I’ll be telling you a bit more about why we’ve been away for so long and what to expect going forward.

I was going to write down a day by day journal to post to the blog to show the specific steps that we took to overcome the various difficulties, but because there was so much going on I decided to focus on one thing at a time and do things properly.

The underlying message of this post is to not fret when things don’t go the way you planned and to take your time and seek out the silver lining that may benefit you and others.

Hosting Problems

Our previous host had problems early on when we first signed up with them. They were hacked and all their clients data was held to ransom. As you could imagine we and their other clients were very worried about what this meant for our visitors, and some left straight away.

We discussed the issue with the hosts and decided to wait it out as we believed that they would take the necessary steps to make sure that our data was safe and that they would help us to better achieve V-CAF’s website goals.

Then in mid October our hosts services went down in Europe (where our server was located). There was no warning or email notification. Luckily, I was in the process of doing some site maintenance after paying for new services with our host and saw that there was a problem.

This time we went to the hosts community site to find out what was going on and what we found was terrible. Many European hosted sites were down and had no access to their data.

As we were only using our previous host for hosting our blog and website we took the decision to look for a new host and start the migration process. As we didn’t have the latest version of our changes locally, this process lasted an age.

Development Problems

Unfortunately for us our hosting problems would impact our app development process as we were mid cycle of developing new improvements to V-CAF on top of our previous improvement releases that we timed with Apple’s release of iOS 15 and watchOS 8.

As you may or may not know, we are a small team so resources had to be pulled from development to help with the hosting issues which was keeping us very busy, to say the least.

The new features that we were planning were taking longer than expected due to a bug we found in the development framework which lead to us having conversations with Apple to figure a way around them.

And because problems like to come in threes, we also had personal commitments and issues that also had an impact on how much time we could dedicate to development and fixing the hosting issue.

The New Way Ahead

Thankfully, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Data on the website is almost 100% restored. Our new hosts have been extremely helpful with getting us back up and running and things are not just back to normal, but better and faster.

Thanks hosting team 🤩

There are new changes coming for V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert. As I’m writing this we are waiting for Apple to approve the changes so the new version of the app will be out hopefully at some point this week!

If you’ve got this far into the post, thank you and we want to share the major change that we made to the app with you…

V-CAF is now free to download! When the new release is out, download the iOS version of the app, and then using Apple’s Watch App, download the watchOS version.

You get 3 free launches of the app on the watchOS version after which if you like it please click the upgrade button to do a one time Lifetime access In-App purchase. Click the upgrade button on the iOS version of V-CAF to upgrade both the iOS and watchOS versions and make sure that your Apple Watch is on and that V-CAF is running.

If you bought the app in a previous release, please click the Restore button under the Settings tab on the iOS version of the app, and again make sure that your Apple Watch is on and the watchOS version of V-CAF is running.

If you have any problems please contact us at:
info@v-caf.org

Review

As the picture in this blog post states “Slow Down” seemed to be the message that all these incidents were telling us.

Thankfully the rest of the V-CAF team also picked up on that theme and we slowed down, didn’t panic, and only did what needed to be done on the things that we could work on to get back and go past where we were before.

We hope that you take the opportunity to try out the new release of V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert and that you find it useful for your productivity needs.

Afterword

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Categories
Caffeine Caffeine Addiction Caffeine Alternative Energy Focus Insomnia Productivity Sleep

How To Out Smart Your Tiredness

Your Apple Watch, V-CAF & You

Stay awake and alert…

I had some urgent work to get done and time was against me. Caught between a rock and a hard place I decided to power on and resorted to coffee to help me beat the tiredness.

This was before my abstinence from caffeine and I’d always used some form of caffeine to get me through the tough times. Unfortunately on this occasion my coffee didn’t seem to help. “No problem, I’ll just drink more”, I thought. But by now more meant having my sixth espresso (with a teaspoon of sugar).

Sure enough it seemed to work for a little while but soon after I felt even more tired, so I decided to stop for the night and continue in the morning. Bad idea! I went to bed and couldn’t get to fall asleep even though I felt exhausted. At first I thought it was due to the work that I still had to finish, but at some point near sunrise I realised that it must of been all the coffee I had!

I knew it was not going to be a pleasant day ahead.

Out Smart Your Tiredness
Photo by @mkolchanov via Twenty20

The Old Path

Getting out of bed and feeling tired, I did what most people do and reached for the coffee to start off the day. And as I’ve said many times before, coffee (or more specifically, caffeine) works, just not the way that most people think.

Caffeine works by interlocking with your adenosine receptors which has the effect of blocking their ability to respond to the adenosine levels in your brain. Your body produces adenosine throughout the day and high levels of adenosine activate your adenosine receptors to indicate to your brain that your tiredness levels are increasing.

Caffeine manipulates your adenosine receptors to make you feel more alert than you actually are, which many people confuse with gaining more energy when in fact they have the same amount of energy and tiredness as they did before consuming caffeine. Caffeine is so good at blocking adenosine that its effects can last up to twelve hours.

Knowing what I know now I feel duped that I thought caffeine would help me get through the day! My plan was to drink a cup of coffee whenever I felt tired so that I could concentrate in short bursts and get things done. It had worked in the past, so I didn’t think that it wouldn’t work now, especially after a night of not being able to sleep well due to the amount of coffee that I’d drunk throughout the last couple of days.

Unfortunately I didn’t count on my caffeine tolerance levels increasing and just when I needed the caffeine fix the most, it didn’t make me feel alert or able to concentrate any better than before!

Dead End

What You Should Know about Caffeine states: “Caffeine does not accumulate in the bloodstream or body and is normally excreted within several hours following consumption.” In fact, only about 1 percent of caffeine is excreted. The remaining 99 percent must be detoxified by the liver, and the removal of the resulting metabolites is a slow and difficult process. In Chapter 3, you will learn that it can take up to twelve hours to detoxify a single cup of coffee. In fact, the matter of accumulation has never been resolved. Evidence suggests that it may take up to seven days to decaffeinate the blood of habitual coffee drinkers. Plus, it can take three weeks or more for the body’s levels of stress hormones to return to normal. If that’s not accumulation, what is?

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (pp. 20-21). Grand Central Publishing.

To compensate for my apparent lack of alertness I had a few more cups of coffee and a cola. After a short while, although I didn’t feel great and clear headed, I felt better than I had before, but not for long. After about forty minutes I felt tired again and wanted more caffeine.

What I didn’t know then was that my body’s caffeine tolerance had increased significantly so I would need to consume much more caffeine just to get to the point where I felt normal. To make matters worse, when you become dependent on caffeine to keep you awake and functioning, the act of not consuming caffeine for a brief period can induce withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Although annoying, caffeine withdrawal symptoms for some people can pass quite quickly (a couple of days), but for others it can take weeks.

In my case I started to feel extremely tired and found it difficult to concentrate. I knew that I wouldn’t get any work done so I decided to take the rest of the day off and recover at home. Luckily it was the weekend so I decided to keep away from caffeine, and during the day get outside and go for walks, and get to bed by 10pm during the evenings.

I felt lazy for most of the weekend and decided to do the very minimal that I could around the house and I didn’t go out too much (mostly to the shops to get food and supplies). I dozed off a lot and didn’t eat much, but by Sunday I found that my head felt clearer and I wasn’t feeling so irritable.

I decided that the following week I would keep away from caffeine and get to bed on time. Caffeine did help, but only briefly.

Work Smarter

These days I rarely drink coffee and although I do enjoy a caffeinated cold beverage once in a while, I don’t depend on caffeine to help me to focus or concentrate.

Instead I make it a daily priority to get to bed at roughly the same time every night (including during holidays), getting good quality sleep as well as getting enough sleep, exercising daily and eating more healthy.

Taking these steps alone has helped me more than overcome my caffeine dependance and I believe increased my level of productivity as well. Doing this has also helped me concentrate so that the quality of my work improved too.

In addition I manage my tiredness levels better than I did in the past and as I like gadgets, use my iPhone and Apple Watch to help me. In particular I regularly use our app V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert throughout the day to inform me of when my alertness is dropping so that I can do something to wake myself up.

In other articles I’ve mentioned how I useV-CAF to notify me when it’s time to take a break, and where I can (usually in the afternoon after lunch), I either have a 20 minute nap or go for a walk or stretch and do some light exercises (for example my martial arts forms) to help reengage my mind with my body. I’ve found that after taking a quality relaxing break, when I get back to my desk, things just flow and work gets done quicker.

Review

Since the industrial age caffeine has been the go to drug of choice to help us with our alertness and overcoming tiredness. Although caffeine appears to work, in the long run our minds and bodies pay the price in disrupted sleep, caffeine dependancy and risking intoxication due to harmful chemicals found in coffee.

To date, over 700 volatile substances in coffee have been identified, including more than 200 acids and an incredible array of alcohols, aromatic compounds, carbonyl compounds, esters, hydrocarbons, heterocyclic compounds, and terpenoids. Nonvolatile substances in coffee include caffeine and other purines, glycosides, lipids, melanoidins, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid. And that’s just the stuff that’s supposed to be there. Coffee often contains a raft of pesticide residues and other contaminants such as nitrosamines, solvents, and mycotoxins. These carry well-defined health risks, and some are carcinogenic.

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (p. 16). Grand Central Publishing.

Thankfully there are alternatives that are far less harmful and work with our bodies such as diet, exercise and sleep. There are also smart devices such as the Apple iPhone and Apple Watch that coupled with apps such as “V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert” can be used to help you manage your tiredness levels and get more out of the day.

Afterword

The deception has been well coordinated by an industry whose goal is quite simple: to get as much caffeine into your body as possible. If the caffeine industry can accomplish that, they have you as a customer for life. They know caffeine saps your natural sense of vitality, leaving you dependent on their products to get through the day. They know that you actually crave their products and, more importantly, that you suffer when you don’t consume them. It’s a marketing dream, and it’s legal. No wonder more and more companies are jumping on the caffeine bandwagon, churning out products from specialized coffees and teas to “herbal” caffeinated energy pills, caffeine-laced fruit beverages, “supercharged” soft drinks, caffeinated beer, and even caffeinated bottled water.

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (p. 4). Grand Central Publishing.

Categories
Anxiety Energy Productivity

Life After Deadlines – Cooling Down

Dying to Make Deadlines

Take some well deserved downtime…

My last three deadlines have been very stressful. After each deadline passed I felt exhausted and didn’t want to do anything work related for at least a month. But alas, as I’m employed by someone else there’s always something more to do; another urgent deadline, another milestone to surpass.

Luckily for me, sometimes the work is really interesting and I get consumed by figuring out how to solve the latest problem, but working like this can make you feel like your the hamster on the wheel, going nowhere fast no matter how much effort and energy you put in to your work or study.

I hoped by speaking with the office Veterans about this someone would have some words of wisdom to help me get through this rut, but unfortunately the best advice was that it will soon pass.

It’s true and it does pass, but at what cost? Am I, like so many others doomed to work in this never-ending deadline loop with no reprieve, or are there better more sane ways of coping with the daily grind?

Reflecting on the Costs
Photo by @raqwell via Twenty20

Creeping Debt

In previous articles I’ve explained about how we can inadvertently overload ourselves with stress without realising what we are doing. Unless we are aware of the potential to over burden ourselves, most people continue working in ways that eventually can lead to stress and illness.

With the case of my past three deadlines in mind I was eager to get on with the work and get things done. The first deadline had a three week completion date and the work that I had to do was planned out well and even gave me wiggle time to get things done.

Over the next three weeks things conspired, as they do, to make sure that I wouldn’t make the deadline without a fight! Creeping and changing requirements, things not working as expected and misunderstandings all took their toll. What this translated to was longer work days, less time to wind down when I got home, and more work to do fixing my mistakes that I made whilst working when fatigued. But good news, we made the deadline!

During the last week of the first deadline I was pulled into a meeting to discuss the second deadline, knowing that the next round of work began on the following Monday. The second deadline was just as well planned out as the first but with less wiggle room and more work. As you can guess the stress was starting to take its toll and the second round of work had even more difficulties than the first round.

By the time the third deadline was about to start I hardly had the mental energy to even think about things. I just hunkered down and did the best that I could given the circumstances. By the end of the last round I felt like I just wanted to curl up and sleep, but knew that there was more work coming.

 

The Breakdown

A similar situation is true for a lot of us whilst studying or working:

  • You start off full of enthusiasm and eagerness to get things done
  • You get things done and you feel that you are making progress
  • As a reward you get more things to do
  • After a few more cycles of getting things done and then getting more work to do you start to feel like it takes more effort to get the same things done
  • Either the quality or quantity of your work starts to slip and others start to notice
  • Things become a chore and you just work to put something in (usually not your best work).

Being unaware that you are under stress, you’re more likely to expose yourself to building up a stress debt that eventually can break you and leave you unable to work.

To complicate matters some of our lifestyle choices (which can be influenced by the amount of stress that we are exposed to) also impact on our health and further compound the stresses that we are already experiencing. For example alcohol abuse, smoking, not getting enough physical activity and being obese are all factors that can negatively contribute to your stress levels.

Stress itself is significant for survival. In small doses, it activates search activity, helps to solve many problems that a person faces that day, contributes to development, helps activate the body’s defences when fighting diseases. However, chronic stress is directly related to the onset and progression of many pathological conditions.

Shelestova, O., and . “COPING STRATEGIES AND MODELS OF OVERCOMING POST-STRESS CONDITIONS.” Herald of Kiev Institute of Business and Technology (2020).

Too much stress can lead to:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Emotional instability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of memory
  • Increased fatigue

Coping Strategies

Being able to identify when you are stressed is important as it allows you to take action to reduce your stress levels. In my case with the three deadlines, I continually ignored the signs that I was getting more stressed than I needed and as a result made it more difficult for me to complete my tasks.

I thought that I had it all under control as I took regular breaks whilst at work (even when working long hours), I still found time to exercise regularly and get in between 7 – 9 hours of sleep daily (although it was probably closer to 6 – 7 hours of sleep, which might not have been of the best quality due to stress).

And although I did meet my deadlines I felt shattered by the end of it! So looking back what could I have done better?

A Problem Aired

It turns out by having a group of people going through similar stresses that are willing to talk about them does help. For a start, the group can validate your feelings and help you not feel so isolated. Sharing your concerns with a councillor, support group or work colleagues can greatly reduce the effects of stress on your health. You also have access to other peoples insights and strategies that you may not of thought about which can be very beneficial. It also helps vent your frustrations, which thereby lessens your stress burden.

Move More

Even though I exercised regularly, I still found that I spent a lot of hours at my desk (because I only took 5 minute breaks by looking around the office or checking my email). As frustration and stress builds throughout the day taking a few minutes away from your desk and getting involved in some sort of physical activity does wonders. In the past I’ve practiced my martial arts forms or gone for a walk which have had the effect of lifting my mood and clearing my head. Do whatever works for you be it running, walking, swimming etc. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something (especially when you feel your stress levels raising).

Chill Out Periods

And finally, take time off before starting your next assignment. One of the things that annoys me the most is being disturbed whilst working on a tight deadline to plan work to come. Why? It doesn’t make work more efficient and actively increases the stress load of those who have to do the work, as it makes it seem that you don’t get a chance to catch your breath. If you are in a position to organise the work, please give everyone at least one working day to recover from the last deadline (weekends and holidays don’t count). Spend a day between tasks to gather your self back together and spend time tying up any loose ends and if you are rested enough, looking through what work is to come (not in detail and not organising things), so that you can gently ease yourself into your next assignment.

Review

Ultimately your health and wellbeing are your responsibility so be nice to yourself and take some timeout to gather your thoughts and recuperate to prepare yourself for your next task.

The mistake I made with the three deadlines was to not take a breather between each assignment which lead to sub par results and frustration and loathing on my part.

Don’t scrimp on your down times, you may pay a bigger price in the long run.

Afterword

Multiply these [stressful] incidents over time and the ingredients for job-related stress overload that contribute to absenteeism, inefficiency, sabotage, and personal breakdowns will be present.

Hartman, .C. (1982). Stress Relief for Transportation Employees. Social Work, 27(5), 449-451.
Categories
Energy Focus Productivity Sleepiness Studying Tiredness

Protecting The Quality of Your Work

Protecting Your Quality of Life

Self first, then others

Working or studying for long hours goes hand in hand with working hard and being productive. I’ve worked at many firms that believe this to be true. If the business owners or senior management spend a lot of time at work the chances are that their employees and subordinates will do the same in order to be seen in a favourable light.

Unfortunately for many firms where this is the case, staff turnover is often high and morale isn’t as good as it could be. Eventually even the quality of work begins to suffer and productivity decreases. In an effort to reverse the trend, managers can demand more from their teams who already feel that they are giving all that they can.

Academics and students don’t do much better. As the pressure to compete with other departments and institutions for research bursaries increases, the need to produce favourable results can lead to people working extremely long days, seven days a week which eventually affects the quality of the research and study in a negative way.

Trying to suggest to such people to spend less time working is often met with derision or dismissed as not being realistic. “If I don’t put the hours in how will the work get done”, is a response I used to give back to anyone that dared mention cutting back on the hours spent at work, whilst having to do more tasks.

But what if our assumptions about putting more time in at work are wrong and may in fact be the reason why we have to put more hours in?

Protect Yourself
Photo by @AZ.BLT via Twenty20

Quantity and Effort

Let me start off by saying that I’m not opposed to working long hours per se, but my past experiences of working long hours and the results I achieved led me down the path of investigating if there was a better way of getting things done apart from spending all my waking hours trying to figure out how to finish my task on time.

In many professions long hours are a cultural norm (take junior doctors for example), and anyone challenging the status quo tend to be seen in an unfavourable manner that often can effect their career prospects. Those that complain can be made to seem weak and not up to the task of getting things done, which is all well and good, but can have a chilling effect on anyone who might have a better solution to just throwing more hours at a problem.

Another motivating tactic that is often used to get people to work longer and so increase productivity is to pay more money or overtime. This seems fair as your time and effort is being compensated for, but what about your health and family time? Again, there’s nothing wrong with working long hours but you have to take into account all aspects of your life (unless you live to work).

And full disclosure here, I regularly work long hours, but have found ways to manage that with my family and personal life. Working long hours from time to time I believe is acceptable, but what I don’t like is that it soon starts to be seen as the norm and exploited as such.

Grinding Ourselves Down

Perhaps a better question may be “What is the cost of working fatigued?” According to a fatigue cost estimator from the National Safety Council and Brigham and Women’s Sleep Matters Initiative, health-related cost of lost productivity is $136 billion a year. Further, a reported 70% of Americans regularly experience insufficient sleep. Sleep loss, especially in the presence of underlying sleep disorders, results in reduced workplace productivity and increased absenteeism, health care expenditures, workplace accidents and injuries, and motor vehicle accidents during commutes.

Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),

When working long hours becomes the norm, that’s when the negative effects on work start to take hold. Working long hours for short periods of time is okay and is needed from time to time to get things done due to an unforeseen oversight or event.

Prolonged overworking leads to work fatigue and stress which can have negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Work fatigue is negative for both employee and employer or company.

Employees presenting high levels of work fatigue displayed lower job satisfaction, psychological health, physical health, and organisational commitment, coupled with accrued turnover intentions and difficulties to relax after work. Work fatigue is damaging both psychologically and physically, leading to less efficient work recovery, negative work attitudes and health-related difficulties.

Blais, A., Gillet, N., Houle, S., Comeau, C., & Morin, A. (2020). Work Fatigue Profiles: Nature, Implications, and Associations With Psychological Empowerment.Frontiers in Psychology,11,

So how do you know if you are suffering from work fatigue? Here’s a list of signs to lookout for:

  • Constantly yawning
  • Falling asleep when sitting still
  • Feeling tired throughout the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Feeling tired when waking up in the morning
  • Unmotivated to go to work and/or finish tasks
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

Preventative Measures

I mentioned earlier that I also regularly work long hours and have found ways that help me reduce the effects of doing so on my health and personal life.

At first it may seem easier said than done, but by being consistent and working through these steps (and those that you find for yourself, that work for you) you’ll find that you’ll be able to maintain a high level of work whilst at the same time feeling like you have more energy.

Let’s get to it, in no particular order, here are some tips that you may find helpful in reducing the effects of working long hours over a prolonged period of time.

Give Purpose or Meaning to What You Do

  • Where does your current profession fit into the bigger plan for your life? Does it align with your life’s goals?
  • Figure out what are the implications of your current task for you, your team and/or company.
  • Figure out which is more important to you, your life or your work life and reorganise as needed (I’m not suggesting that you walk out of your job because the quality of your life is more important! For example if your home life is more important, then start to organise your work life around your personal life if that is possible. If not, then figure out how to make it so).

Look After Your Health

  • Although your employer (even if you are self employed) may try to make things at work as comfortable as they can for you, don’t neglect your own health.
  • Take regular breaks whilst at work (every 25 – 30 mins) where you get up and walk around.
  • If your job permits, after lunch have a 10 – 20 minute nap to help refocus your mind, relieve any tiredness and give you a quick boost in your energy levels without having to resort to caffeine.
  • Take regular exercise
  • Get outside more (maybe during one of your scheduled breaks throughout the day). Getting daylight to your skin and eyes helps regulate your circadian rhythm which in turn will help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals and smoking before going to bed.
  • Go to bed at regular times and get between 7 – 10 hours of sleep per night (even on weekends and holidays).

Review

There is constant pressure to perform well at work and whilst studying. Some people assume that spending many hours working or studying is time well spent. Unfortunately due to no fault of their own, they are ignorant to the fact that it doesn’t work.

Schools, workplaces and cultural norms reinforce this misguided path as the logical common sense way to achieve great results. It is further reinforced by the “Captains of Industry” who often are cited as having little time for sleep.

Scientific studies are continually updating their findings regarding work fatigue and it currently seems to be clear that working long hours over a long period of time increases the chances of suffering from work fatigue and stress which can negatively affect health and quality of work.

Afterword

Sleep deprivation, in some populations, is still considered a point of pride and a reflection of toughness. However, this argument is based largely in ignorance and companies are beginning a movement to counteract it. Along with recommendations to sleep 7-9 hours at night, daytime naps are being integrated into workplace culture in the world’s largest grossing tech, consulting, media, and retail companies.

Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),
Categories
Productivity Side Effects Sleep Sleepiness Staying Awake Study Studying

Can I Still Be Productive On Only 4 Hours of Sleep?

Get The Sleep You Can

Stay Awake, Stay Alert

Michelangelo, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher and Martha Stewart to name a few, only slept for up to four hours each night. Impressive stuff and it appears to have paid off as we know about their contributions to the advancement of our species.

Edison was particularly critical of sleep and stated publicly that it was a “waste of time”. For better or worse, people have tried to emulate the success of those like Edison and sacrifice their sleep in order to get more done and gain an advantage over the competition.

The need to get ahead can take its toll on individuals and societies which can lead to many unforeseen bad consequences, one of which is being able to clearly think and evaluate situations in a logical manner. Being overworked and stressed seems to be antithetical to being productive and healthy, but there are many examples of people (like those mentioned above), that have overcome these obstacles despite not having the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Is it that some of us are naturally endowed with the ability to have much less sleep than others without compromising their health, or is it that something else is at work here and that having less than six hours of sleep per night can have serious health implications?

Get Some Sleep
Photo by @darby via Twenty20

Productivity vs Sleep

A small group (1 to 3 percent) of the population are among the “sleepless elite “ who are able to get by happily on just a few hours of sleep.

Whether they’re part of this lucky group or have been driven by the pressures of their jobs, we’ve compiled a list of successful executives, political figures, and entertainers who have shunned the 8 hour mantra and managed to rise to the top.

Carolyn Cutrone and Max Nisen, 19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep, Business Insider, Sep 18, 2012, source: Successful People Who Barely Sleep

There have been many articles and online video blogs that follow the current trends of the rich and successful. In many of the posts the focus has been on either how naturally talented their subjects are, how hard they work or both.

The implication is that as a ‘normal’ person watching these elites from the outside, you don’t want success as much as they do or you don’t have the talent to make it to their lofty heights. Your lack of success is down to you not putting in enough time and effort to develop yourself to their level, besides what are the chances of you being in that top 1 to 3 percent like the elites.

Many workers and students also feel that they have to put in the extra time and effort in order to stand a chance of being able to compete with their peers and the broader population in general. A popular approach to this kind of pressure is to work longer hours and shorten the amount of time spent in leisure activities and turning off after work; a practice that can negatively affect the quality and quantity of sleep.

We should also consider that work pressure doesn’t affect everyone the same. And that work and study pressures can be temporary. Even so, care must be taken as volunteering ourselves for sleep deprivation (even for short periods) can have a negative effect on our general health and wellbeing.

 

Self Sleep Deprived

Our leisure time might also be having an effect on our sleep. Many of us spend a lot of time in front of various devices’ screens, the light from which can effect our bodies’ production of melatonin. Melatonin is our bodies’ natural way of regulating how tired we feel and helps us to prepare to sleep. Melatonin production is affected by our exposure to light and therefore too much light in the evenings (especially before going to bed) interferes with our sleep and reduces the quality of the sleep that we get.

This can lead us to being sleep deprived which most certainly reduces our productive ability. Not getting enough sleep can have the following effects:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Inability to focus
  • Reduced motivation
  • Reduced problem solving ability
  • Confussion
  • Irritability
  • Memory lapses
  • Slower reaction times
  • Reduced ability to process information
  • Increase in a lack of judgement

A lack of sleep can also increase the risk of suffering from heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and depression.

Increased Sleep Increases Productivity

Given what we know about the effects of lack of sleep on our productivity and health, to combat these effects ultimately we have to get more good quality sleep.

However this is more easily said than done. Below are some tips that you can incorporate into your daily routine to help you get enough sleep and spend less time at work/studying by doing more of the things that will help you to perform at your best.

  • Get to bed between 9pm and 10pm as this will help facilitate you getting enough good quality sleep as your body naturally starts to produce melatonin which helps you sleep better.
  • Don’t use any light emitting gadgets just before you go to bed. Give yourself a couple of hours to wind down and allow your body to start producing melatonin.
  • Organise your work so that you do your most difficult work around 10am (if you are a morning person), or 3pm – 6:30pm (if you’re an afternoon person).
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol just before going to bed.
  • Take regular breaks rather than one long big break throughout the day. Dividing your task into 25 minute blocks with a five minute break between each block for the day will help keep you focused and help keep fatigue at bay.
  • Include regular exercise in your daily routine (even a 25 minute walk has been proven to positively affect the quality of peoples sleep later in the evening).
  • If you find yourself struggling to stay awake during the day or suffering from brain fog, take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have found that napping helps with your alertness and focus immediately after.

Review

So, can we be productive with only four hours of sleep? The answer is it depends. Limiting the amount of times that you sleep for under four hours can be helpful if you have a tough work or study load, but it shouldn’t be the norm.

Yes there are some people that can get by with very little sleep, but keep in mind that they are a small percentage of the population. If you can still produce your best quality work with only a few hours sleep regularly, then don’t mess with what works.

Just be mindful that the less hours you get to sleep, the greater the risk to your health.

Afterword

The conclusion from research into polyphasic sleep and short-sleepers is clear. When it comes to sleep, there are no quick fixes. As a result, it is vital that everyone knows how to get a good night’s rest.

Wiseman, Richard. Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep (p. 96). Pan Macmillan.
Categories
Fatigue Productivity Sleep

Need to get into Sync?

Tune Your Circadian Rhythm

Feel better, be better…

It’s good to be in sync. Things seem to flow effortlessly, work ain’t such a drag and life is good. Being out of sync though, is not great. Doing the most basic of tasks take a lot of effort, work is unbearable, and life feels like you’re going nowhere.

A big challenge for the developed world is balancing our family, work and societal needs with our own needs and well being. Many of the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted depend on someone having to sacrifice their well being so as to maintain what we’ve become used to.

Likewise many of us sacrifice our well being and health by unconsciously doing things in ways that can knock us out of sync with our body’s rhythms which in the long term can be very detrimental to us.

A central component of our well being is for our circadian rhythm to be in sync with our environment. Being out of sync has serious implications for health, well being and productivity as well as be costly for society in general.

Briefly put, our circadian rhythm regulates our responses to a solar day and regulates when we wake up and when we feel tired enough to sleep. It does a lot more and we’ll go into detail later. What’s important to know right now is that our circadian rhythm has taken time to evolve in our species so that we can better regulate our lives according to the amount (or lack thereof) of daylight. It has done a fantastic job up until the industrial age when artificial light sources have extended our waking hours.

In now days with computers, smartphones and gadgets that all emit light we may have accidentally broken our circadian rhythm and be out of sync with ourselves and environment.

Getting In Sync
Photo by @Astu via Twenty20

The Drift

Before the invention of the electronic light bulb most people followed regular waking and sleep cycles that were seldom disrupted. The majority of the world lived an agrarian lifestyle and as such their daily routines were closely aligned to the rising and setting of the sun.

As the industrial age took hold a large amount of the working populations in Europe and America migrated from the farmlands to the industrialised cities hoping to improve their and their families’ prospects. In return workers and their families had to conform to new working practices which were increasingly at odds with the old agricultural regime.

Work hours didn’t necessarily correspond to the old sunrise to sunset model and people found themselves working longer hours and working night shifts. This situation worsened with the invention of the electric light bulb. Due to production demands and the eager adoption of electronic lighting, people were now able to work longer hours and shift work became widespread.

Workers soon began to feel pressured to work longer hours and do more shifts as the competition was stiff and people wanted to succeed. There was a perception that feeling tired wasn’t manly and that you were somehow lazy and not ambitious enough to make it big.

Thomas Edison created much of this bright new world. With regard to the changing relations of work to sleep, the inventor of practical incandescent lighting was not only the father of the night shift. He also took a prominent part in criticizing and even ridiculing sleep as an inefficient and immoral indulgence.

Edison was perhaps the most famous and widely admired American of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a hybrid celebrity renowned for his imaginative genius and his entrepreneurial acumen.

A tireless self promoter whose greatest invention was himself, Edison spent considerable amounts of his own and his staff’s energy in publicising the idea that success depended in no small part on staying awake to stay ahed of the technological and economic competition.

Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy (pp. 4-5). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Out of Line

It wasn’t long before the effects of overworking and under sleeping started to take their toll on the working population. Although workers and their advocates were successful in getting legislation passed to limit the number of hours they worked, it wasn’t an easy battle. For the rest of the twentieth century there would be various efforts taken across the world to address the issue of working long hours and its effects on society.

Unfortunately, just as workers have started to win some hard fought concessions with regards to the amount of time that they spend working, we are unconsciously volunteering ourselves to potentially dangerous outcomes due to the amount of night time light pollution we expose ourselves to.

Flat screen tvs, smartphones, electronic tablets, computers and bright lighting are all having similar effects on our circadian rhythm as working night shifts or long hours due to the amount of light that we expose ourselves to. This is important as our circadian rhythm uses light to determine the appropriate responses to take for any given time of day.

Using light as a cue our circadian rhythm helps regulate our tiredness and quality of sleep. In a well aligned day:

  • 07:00 – Our bodies stop producing melatonin and this helps us to wake up
  • 10:00 – By this time our body has fully woken up and we are at our most alert time of the day (approximately).
  • 12:00 – 14:00 We experience our mid afternoon crash
  • 18:30 We experience our peak energy for the day
  • 21:00 – 22:00 our body starts producing melatonin
  • 02:00 Our deepest part of the sleep cycle

Exposing ourselves to the light emitted by our electronic devices is detrimental to our sleep and circadian rhythm as light can affect our body’s ability to accurately respond to what time of day it is. The result is poor sleep and daytime fatigue. If you’ve ever woken up and felt like you didn’t get enough sleep, the chances are that your circadian rhythm is out of sync.

Pervasiveness and intensity of nighttime light exposure is unprecedented in our history.
When exposure to light is mistimed or nearly constant, biological and behavioural rhythms can become desynchronised, leading to negative consequences for health. The relationship among mood disorders , light, and circadian rhythms have long been recognised.
Many mood disorders are either characterised by sleep and circadian rhythm disruption or precipitated by an irregular light-dark cycle.

Walker, W., Walton, J., DeVries, A., & Nelson, R. (2020). Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1),

Studies have highlighted that when our sleep cycle is out of sync with our circadian rhythm, the risk of suffering from any of the following conditions is increased greatly:

  • Lower glucose metabolism
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Impaired attention
  • Dysphoric mood
  • Difficulty learning and thinking

Getting In Sync

Thankfully there are a few things that you can do to help yourself get back on track, which require a little bit of effort and can be quite enjoyable once you embrace them.

Sleep Routine

  • Get to bed between 9pm and 10pm as this will help facilitate you getting enough good quality sleep as your body naturally starts to produce melatonin which helps you sleep better.
  • As your body stops producing melatonin around 7am, set this as your regular wake up time (even on weekends).
  • Don’t get overly warm or cold when you go to bed.
  • Don’t use any light emitting gadgets just before you go to bed. Give yourself a couple of hours to wind down and allow your body to start producing melatonin.

Daytime Routine

  • Organise your work so that you do your most difficult work around 10am (if you are a morning person), or 3pm – 6:30pm (if you’re an afternoon person).
  • If you are going to consume caffeine don’t do it past midday. If you suffer from a mid afternoon crash then have your last caffeine intake between 12pm and 2pm.
  • Take regular breaks rather than one long big break throughout the day. Dividing your task into 25 minute blocks with a five minute break between each block for the day will help keep you focused and help keep fatigue at bay.
  • Include regular exercise in your daily routine (even a 25 minute walk has been proven to positively affect the quality of peoples sleep later in the evening).
  • If you find yourself struggling to stay awake during the day or suffering from brain fog, take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have found that napping helps with your alertness and focus immediately after.

Review

Keeping your circadian rhythm in sync is just as important to your health as regular exercise. Going to bed at regular times and not using light emitting devices close to the time that you go to bed will help keep you in sync.

You also get the benefit of an increase in your ability to focus and a feeling of increased energy just by simply following the steps outlined in this post.

Afterword

Rather than celebrate the night, sleep and dreaming are now treated as annoying interruptions to our all-important lives. Living in a world that hasn’t had a good night’s rest for years has finally taken its toll. The vast majority of school children and students now arrive for their classes severely sleep deprived, adult sleep debt is at a record high, the demand for sleeping pills is rising year on year, and millions of people go about their daily business in a zombie-like state that is ruining their relationships, health and productivity. Perhaps more than at any other point in history, there is now an urgent need to change our attitudes towards the night. I believe that this will require nothing short of a revolution.

Wiseman, Richard. Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep (pp. 296-297). Pan Macmillan.
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
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.