Rest is perhaps one of the most undervalued, necessary components of human life, especially in today’s 24/7 economy. By all appearances, resting seems unproductive. However, new research from a University of Virginia professor and his colleague shows that resting may be one of the most productive things we do in any given day.

Manel Baucells, a professor in UVA’s Darden School of Business, and Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing published a paper, “It Is Time to Get Some Rest,” showing the importance of workday breaks.

The researchers used insights from the pacing and race techniques of Olympic swimmers to suggest how employees working under different conditions can pace their breaks to maximize productivity and avoid overwork and associated problems.

Other research has connected overwork –long work periods of high intensity – and fatigue to higher rates of cognitive errors and safety infractions on the job (sometimes fatal to patients or customers), as well as to increased anger and relational difficulties. Outside of work, overworked individuals experience greater rates of depression and physical health problems, lower life quality and satisfaction, and negative impacts on their children and families.

As an antidote to these problems, Baucells and Zhao’s research offers two models for the ideal timing of workday breaks, depending on the nature of the work.

The Analog Condition: Work Can Be Modulated

An energy-speed model that Baucells and Zhao developed for Olympic swimmers in a time trial competition showed that the best swimmers don’t swim their fastest (just as runners don’t run their fastest) continuously in a race. If they try, their energy buffer will be exhausted too quickly and they will slow down more over time.

The ideal pacing, the pair found, included a strong initial start followed by an intentional lowering of the “burn rate,” precisely calculated so that there is some energy left in reserve for the final sprint. If an athlete doesn’t learn when to transition from the high pace at the beginning to the lower pace mid-race, or to set right the mid-pace, then he or she will either run out of energy too soon or have “too much” energy for the end, which could have been more efficiently spread out during the race.

Bacuells and Zhao suggest a similar “high-low-high” effort pattern for employees who can modulate the pace of their work. They should begin and end the day with maximum intensity, but take it easier in the middle. On longer days, the spurts of maximum intensity should be short, with the goal of keeping a moderately steady pace all day, much as a marathon runner might. On shorter days, longer periods of intensity at the beginning and end of the day, with a break in the middle, are most helpful, researchers concluded.

The Binary Condition: Work Is All or None

In some jobs, however, effort cannot be modulated. Workers operating a machine, attending to customers at a retail store or restaurant, or performing mental tasks that require constant concentration, like grading exams, must be either working 100 percent or taking a break; they cannot work at 25 percent.

In this “all or none” case, Baucells and Zhao showed that the best distribution of effort is for workers to begin and end the day with “on” periods, but take breaks in between. Far from unproductive, breaks in these situations should be seen as investments in future productivity, because they actually smooth out the fatigue level and recreate the “take it easy” portion mentioned above.

Take the example of grading exams, a task that every teacher can identify with and one that requires consistent mental concentration and effort. Using reasonable assumptions on fatigue and productivity, Baucells and Zhao show that, in their experience, working without breaks for 10 hours results in 15 exams graded. Allowing for three breaks, Baucells and Zhao find that the optimal plan is to work for two hours, take a 45-minute break, work for 105 minutes, take another 45-minute break, work another 105 minutes, take another 45-minute break and end the day with another two straight hours. Following this plan, the total working time drops to seven hours and 30 minutes, while the total output increases to 19 exams graded. The lesson is clear: optimal breaks reduce work time and increase output.

Implications for the Workplace

Because fatigue can be difficult to recognize until it’s extreme (and has already damaged productivity), this research suggests that managers would help their workers – and themselves – by taking preemptive action against fatigue. They can do so, in part, by allowing workers the flexibility of choosing when to take breaks.

Additionally, for the growing sector of self-employed, this research shows that a lot of self-management is needed to create clear boundaries in daily schedules and avoid putting in long hours that yield lower output. Self-employed workers, the authors suggest, might even consider starting work immediately upon rising in the morning, to take advantage of showering and breakfast as times to rest and reduce accumulated fatigue. Otherwise, these early-day activities are like “wasted” breaks, from the standpoint of work fatigue.

The bottom line, they argue, is that when it comes to rest and managing fatigue, the incentives of companies and workers are perfectly aligned. Reducing fatigue can increase productivity, reduce harm to workers, increase work satisfaction, lower turnover and absenteeism, and ultimately increase profits.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications