But it's also the most beneficial time of day to take a break, according to new research by professors at Baylor University.
That counterintuitive finding—many people after all would think the mid-afternoon lull is best for a work pause—was one of a few suggestions for better break-taking in a recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers also showed that what makes breaks most beneficial is that you're doing something you like and something you choose, more so than that you're stepping away from the job entirely.
The researchers aimed to take a prescriptive approach to break-taking, something they say isn't studied enough in the academic literature. While there have been studies from software companies, for instance, reporting a productivity recipe (52 minutes of hard work, followed by a 17 minute break), academic research on breaks have been more experimental in nature and less focused on the average desk worker's day, the researchers said.
"There's not a lot of good empirical research on workday breaks, which is so surprising because it’s such a part of everyone’s work lives," said Emily Hunter, a professor at Baylor who co-authored the study with her colleague, Cindy Wu. "Most of the research in this area is from ergonomics, on manufacturing-type jobs and break timing. That's told us a lot, but it's not always applicable to computer or knowledge workers."
Hunter and Wu asked 95 people who worked primarily in administrative jobs at a university to fill out surveys every time they took breaks over the course of a five-day work week, asking them both before and after the break about their levels of energy, motivation and concentration. The surveys also asked about things like eyestrain, lower back pain and how well they had slept the night before, as well as about their levels of emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction at the end of the week. The researchers ended up with 959 break surveys in their sample.
One of their key findings, Hunter said, is that participants reported more energy, concentration and motivation after breaks in the mid-morning than they did following afternoon breaks. This wasn't just because people were still more rested in the morning, she said, because they were able to control for that factor.
"We think we’re like our cell phones, and we should deplete all the way to zero percent before we recharge back up," Hunter said. "But we have to charge more frequently." By taking midmorning breaks, "we're not allowing ourselves to get so depleted that we're at the point where we want to just get to the end of the day."
Hunter and Wu's research also asked people what they did while on their breaks. And they found little evidence that going for a walk or gabbing about the men's U.S. Open final led to feeling more restored than doing something work-related (though not actual work), such as chatting with a colleague about the boss or answering work email away from your desk.
What did help? The break activity just had to be something the respondent liked more than their usual work.
"We tested many assumptions that people commonly hold about breaks," Hunter said, "like going outside or doing something that’s low effort or something that's not work-related. All these things did not matter as much as two things, really: doing something you prefer and taking breaks earlier in the day."
The pair's finding follows other seemingly counterintuitive research. A professor at Portland State University, Charlotte Fritz, found that when it comes to "microbreaks"—pauses during the workday that are shorter, say, than lunch breaks—doing work-related things such as praising a colleague or writing a to-do list were the only activities that resulted in an increase in people's reported energy.
"Going outside for fresh air during microbreaks showed no statistical relationship to vitality and fatigue levels," she told the Harvard Business Review in 2012. "Helping a coworker did, though. The idea seems to be that when you’re in the middle of work, you’ll do better and feel better if you focus just on work."
Finally, Hunter and Wu found little evidence that longer breaks had more positive effects, but their data did indicate the value of taking frequent short breaks throughout the day.
And if multiple breaks are out of the question when you're buried under a mountain of work? Make sure the one you skip is the 3 p.m. coffee. "If you can only take one break," Hunter said, "then the midmorning one is going to be more effective than taking one at lunch or in the afternoon."