Downtime is Productive: Accomplish More by Taking Breaks

by Jenna Hajny


Whether you’re a college student or a working professional, you can probably relate to the image of a person hunched over a desk with bloodshot eyes, grasping their head in their hands. Work-related exhaustion, or burnout, is an increasingly common phenomenon negatively affecting human health on a global scale.

While mainstream workplace culture often indicates that we should be operating 24/7, this demanding schedule actually harms employee productivity. [1] By familiarizing yourself with the signs of burnout and learning to harness the power of downtime, you’ll be on your way to a new decade of prolific success.

The Signs, Symptoms and Sources of Burnout

First, it’s important to identify the symptoms of burnout so you can actively check-in with yourself and others. A 2019 report published by the World Health Organization identifies the primary symptoms of burnout as feelings of exhaustion, increased negative emotions related to one’s job, and decreased professional efficacy. [2] If left unaddressed for a prolonged period of time, burnout can have more debilitating health effects such as insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and substance abuse. [3]

A 2018 Gallup study revealed that over two-thirds of full-time employees experience work-related burnout, demonstrating the pervasiveness of this problem. [4] Such evidence prompted the WHO to reclassify burnout as an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition in May of 2019. [2] All of this alarming information begs the question: what’s causing burnout?

Potential sources of burnout are a lack of control, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, absence of community, and workload extremes. [5] Therefore, important components of job satisfaction include a sufficient amount of autonomy, healthy relationships with your coworkers and supervisors, and a manageable workload.

To Accomplish More, Give Yourself a Break

Despite the age-old saying that “breaks are for slackers,” if used effectively, downtime is actually scientifically proven to make you more productive. Research published by Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a consulting firm that specializes in corporate growth, indicates that our brains naturally move from full focus to psychological fatigue every 90 minutes. [6]

Robert Pozen, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, further supports this concept by highlighting the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and memory consolidation. [6] 75 to 90 minutes of work followed by a 15-minute break aids the brain in consolidating information for long-term retention. [6] However, in order for this break to enhance your productivity, proper task-switching must be enacted.

This means that rather than moving from making spreadsheets on your computer screen to scrolling through Instagram, your break should be low-tech. Ideas include a brief walk around the block, grabbing coffee with a friend, eating a healthy snack, or listening to music.


Reforming Workplace Culture

While a 15-minute break seems like a feasible solution to burnout, there’s still a culture of shame associated with breaks in the average American workplace which prevents people from taking time for themselves. A 2019 study conducted by Tork, a global hygiene and health company, found that 22% of North American bosses think employees who take regular lunch breaks are less hardworking than those who don’t. Consequently, nearly 40% of surveyed employees indicated that they feel discouraged to take a lunch break. [7]

However, the shame associated with downtime reverberates beyond just lunchtime. One survey discovered that while the average employee in America, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong is allotted ten days off annually, most Americans only take one of the ten. [8] Moreover, even those that used more than just one of their vacation days still indicated feeling pressured to check and reply to work-related emails despite being on a break. [8]

While the stigma around taking breaks won’t change overnight, there are several steps employers and employees can take to collectively improve workplace environments. First and foremost, learn to take breaks yourself. Leading by example is always the best route. Other ideas include starting a walking club, stocking the company fridge with healthy snacks like vegetables and nuts, socializing, and creating a designated quiet space within the office. All of these can help reduce stress and boost job satisfaction. [7]

How to Prevent Burnout


When our bodies are exhausted, we are not only less productive but also put ourselves in danger. A 2018 Gallup study revealed that employees who frequently experience burnout at work are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. [4]

So, when you begin to feel sluggish, a key strategy to refresh your batteries is spending at least 15 minutes outside every day. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that being in a park reduces blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for negative emotions. [10] Potential outdoor activities to help boost your mood include having a picnic, reading a book under a tree, going for a walk, and taking up nature photography.


As high achieving students and professionals at UCLA, we often feel as though we must do everything ourselves. However, learning to advocate for oneself by asking for help is actually an invaluable leadership skill. When your workload begins to feel overwhelming, it’s okay to petition for that essay extension or ask a friend if they’d be willing to cover your Tuesday job shift. Asking for help allows you to prioritize your mental and physical well-being. [11]

Evaluate Your Reality

While it can be tempting to obsess over your perfectly crafted schedule on Course Planner or fantasize about your ideal workplace where the breakroom fridge is stocked with vegan treats, it’s important to evaluate what you can change more easily.

First, modify your expectations. [9] If you seek verbal approval from your boss, but they don’t dole out compliments, identify other ways they or your fellow co-workers appreciate the work that you do. If you wish for a more sociable workplace, try taking group fitness classes at your local gym, joining a club, or bonding with people through volunteer work. Another way to supplement a lack of community in the workplace is by spending more time with family and friends.

The Bottom Line

The detrimental health effects associated with burnout reveal a necessary shift in American workplace culture. While reforming overloaded schedules won’t happen overnight, the correlation between downtime and employee productivity makes a strong case for increasing breaks throughout the workday. In the meantime, make the decision to actively prevent burnout by setting aside just 10 minutes to do something you enjoy. Doodle, call a loved one, or take that power nap!


  1. “How being busy makes you unproductive.” (2016).
  2. “Burn-out an ‘occupational phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases.” (2019).
  3. “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action.” (2018).
  4. “Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes.” (2018).
  5. “The 6 causes of professional burnout and how to avoid them.” (2015).
  6. “Want to be more productive in 2018? Take more breaks.” (2018).
  7. “New study shows correlation between employee engagement and the long-lost lunch break.” (2018).
  8. “Survey finds lots of unused vacation time.” (2012).
  9. “Avoid burnout before you’re already burned out.” (2019).
  10. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.” (2015).
  11. “Why asking for help is a strength (and three ways to do it so effectively).” (2017).

FeaturedJenna HajnyJenna Hajny

Jenna is the 2020-2021 Co-Programming Director. She is a second-year pre-Human Biology & Society major from the Bay Area. She loves to travel, and tries to incorporate a global perspective into her articles on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. When she’s not writing for TW, Jenna enjoys baking, photography, hiking, and especially yoga! Plus, she recently became a certified CorePower Yoga Sculpt Instructor.

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