What Ever Happened to Microbreaks?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, you couldn’t talk about computer work without talking about microbreaks. Researchers studying everything from ergonomics to eyesight recommended that computer users walk away from their workstations something like every 20 to 40 minutes. We need to move our muscles, they said. We need to give our eyes a rest from the screen, they said. And sitting too long is probably not a great idea either. Moving for as little as 30 to 60 seconds will improve our health, prevent injuries, and therefore (it was implied) allow us to work better, longer.

Fast-forward 15 to 20 years, and we’ve given up on microbreaks. Now, we focus on sit-stand desks. These desks allow computer workers to change their position periodically throughout the day to avoid prolonged sitting and increase movement.

Ask anyone who reads popular articles on productivity, and they’ll tell you that “sitting is the new smoking.” The root of the anti-sitting agenda started with research on microbreaks. It’s curious to me why we moved away from the notion that we need an actual break two or three times and hour to instead encouraging continuous work, only with posture changes. We’ve given up on giving our eyes and wrists a break. We’ve dumped the idea that we need to move away from the desk.

It’s also not beyond me that sit-stand desks can be vastly more expensive than so-called break software, which locks a computer user out of her screen for a short period of time to mandate a break. My favorite sit-stand desk, for example—and it truly is a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship—is motorized and includes technology that prompts the users to change position by having the desk raise slightly in a way that mimics a chest rising and falling with a little inhale. This feat of technology and design costs nearly $3,000.

I haven’t completed bought into a conspiracy theory (yet) that sit-stand desk makers killed the microbreak to turn a bigger profit, though I haven’t completely written it off either. Rather, my hunch is that the battle for microbreaks was lost because compliance for them was low.

Tell computer workers to stop dead in their tracks every 20 minutes no matter what they’re doing and walk away from their machine, and they’ll tell you something I probably shouldn’t repeat here. Plus, workers, and not just their bosses, are interested in keeping their productivity high. An overview of several studies on sit-stand desks (Karakolis, 2014) found that productivity likely either increases or remains the same when people use them. Out of eight studies that looked at productivity, three saw positive outcomes in productivity, four found no difference, and one got mixed results.

I’ll be writing more about sit-stand desks and their relationship to productivity soon. But I’m still curious whatever happened to microbreaks. Some research on self-interruptions (Adler 2013, Coker 2011, Dabbish 2001) suggests that we might still be taking microbreaks even if we don’t call it that anymore. When people do computer work, they seem to task-switch or otherwise interrupt their own work periodically to take a short break, often nothing more than checking sports scores online or glancing at social media for a minute or two. So maybe we still need or want some kind of mental microbreak, but it’s still interesting why we gave up on breaks for our eyes.

References

Adler, R., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 1441-1449.

Coker, B. L. S. (2011). Freedom to surf: the positive effects of workplace Internet leisure browsing. New Technology, Work and Employment, 26: 238–247. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-005X.2011.00272.x

Dabbish, L.; Mark, G; & Gonzalez, V.M. (2001). Why Do I Keep Interrupting Myself?: Environment, Habit, and Self-Interruption. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3127-3130 doi: 10.1145/1978942.1979405

Karakolis, T. and Callaghan, J. P. (2014). The Impact of sit-stand office workstations on worker discomfort and productivity: A review. Applied Ergonomics, 45: 799-806.

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