Career & Jobs

Short Breaks Are the Key to Productivity, But the Pandemic Has Us Working Overtime

Nothing is simple for business leaders or job seekers in 2020. We’re frazzled by the many challenges we must navigate and problems we must solve on any given day. Many of us feel our productivity plummeting thanks to COVID-19. Our emotional states are directly connected to our ability to focus. Stress, anxiety, and fear — all common responses to the pandemic — elevate cortisol levels in the brain, which interferes with memory and makes it more difficult to concentrate.

Working from home hasn’t necessarily made things easier for us, either. In fact, between phone calls, television shows, and children engaged in remote learning, the list of distractions only seems to be growing. And the workday never seems to end: Surveys show many Americans have been working three hours more per day during the pandemic, which only serves to increase our stress and exhaustion, harming productivity even further.

Those of us still working on location aren’t fairing much better. We may not have the distractions of working from home, but we do have to worry about things like maintaining social distance, sanitizing our work areas, monitoring employees’ COVID-19 tests, making schedules while accounting for reduced capacity orders, and more.

The past six months have been strange and scary. We’re all dealing with a brand new learning curve. Our high levels of stress and anxiety, as well as our ballooning workdays, are affecting our sleep cycles and our ability to relax. It’s not just our focus and our productivity that suffer under this state of affairs. When we don’t get enough rest, we compromise our immune systems, leaving ourselves open to increased risk of illness. We may also suffer other health issues, like depression, ADHD, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

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To Work Better, Work Less

Sleep and physical relaxation are two of the key focuses in my practice, and for good reason. When we don’t get enough sleep or relaxation, our stressors become even harder to manage. As a result, they distract even more of our attention from important things like focusing on work tasks or keeping a business afloat.

It’s understandable why so many of us have kept our noses to the grindstone during such a chaotic and uncertain time, but instead of trying to work through it, we should actually be prioritizing rest. What I mean is: Taking a time-out from work or mental activity every 75-90 minutes is essential to staying healthy and productivity overall. This regular break is a chance to reset your brain, allow your mind to relax, and clear your headspace. When it’s over, you can return to work more focused, more energized, and less stressed.

As an employee, you need to be carving out time in your day for these breaks. As an employer, you need to be encouraging your employees to do the same — and supporting them when they do.

These breaks doesn’t need to be long. Even 10-15 minutes away from work can do wonders. As for what you should do during your breaks, exercising and meditating are both great ways to improve concentration and recall. Really, anything you can do to increase blood flow and oxygen intake while decreasing mental stress can be great for maintaining consistent productivity throughout the day.

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Take a walk around the block. Instead of a working lunch, take a break to sit still, eat, and think of something positive and inspiring. Call a friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. Pushing through will only drain you and further erode your ability to focus on important work tasks.

Good health depends on a cycle: To function best during your day, you must have a restful evening. Timing is important to getting that restful evening. Analytical activities such as writing a resume or looking at company financial reports should be completed earlier in the day, as these activities require beta brainwaves, which inspire the use of more brainpower and can spike stress responses. If you complete analytical tasks later in the day, you’ll have a harder time settling down to sleep at night. Likewise, step away from emotionally-charged television programs and argumentative social media posts during the evenings. As with analytical work tasks, these can rile you up and make it that much harder to get into a restful mindset.

COVID-19 has affected both our personal and professional lives. For employers, employees, and the unemployed alike, worries are at all-time highs. To find solid answers to the problems we face and keep our employees and families safe, we must regulate our stress levels and improve our focus. When our minds and bodies wake into a positive and well-rested state, we are better equipped to begin the next day’s work and remain focused and productive, even amid the troubles of 2020.

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Dr. Patrick Porter is a neuroscience expert and the creator of BrainTap. Connect with BrainTap on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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