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Have you ever looked up from your work only to realize you’ve neglected to take a break for the whole day?
Ever wonder how it’s already 5 PM and you haven’t had anything but a candy bar and some after dinner mints all day?
Do you sometimes find yourself cranky and hangry by the time you get home because you worked through lunch?
Sure, we’ve all been there!
Forgetting to take a break happens to the best of us, especially if we’re in a “flow state. Or if you have a big deadline to meet. But if this happens to you most days, your mental health could be taking a hit.
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Why is Taking a Break Essential to Our Mental Health?
It may be tempting to blast through schoolwork, an assignment, or a hectic work week just to get it all done. (Believe me, as a recovering workaholic, I know the feeling). But the consequences of consistent all-nighters or work-through-lunch days are pretty steep.
You see, not getting proper and consistent rest affects your body and your mind. This bad mental hygiene habit can lead to anxiety, depression, and (in my case) a total breakdown. Along with all that comes poor sleep, increased irritability, and increasingly poor decision making.
All around, a bad situation that can make work or school totally unbearable after long enough. Especially for those of us struggling with our mental health.
What Kind of Breaks do we Need for Optimum Mental Health?
There are actually several types of breaks you need to get in order to have optimum mental health.
The first is a physical break, where you completely cease labor. These are like your lunch break and the break between shifts, which could be hours or days, depending. This helps our bodies recover from the effects of work.
Second, you’ve got mental breaks. This is when you engage your brain in something other than work responsibilities. You can (and should) have a mental break multiple times a day. This would be something like taking a walk and chatting with a friend about that great mental health blog you read the other day 😉
And third there are emotional breaks. Sometimes our emotions get super tied up in our work, especially if it’s something you’re passionate about. This can lead to great success, but it can also lead to burn out if you’re not careful. That’s why it’s so important to get some emotional space from your work on a regular basis.
Things to Consider About Breaks
According to a study performed by HR Consulting Firm Right Management 81% of employees polled didn’t take a traditional lunch break (i.e. they stayed at their desks to eat). 28% of them didn’t take a break at all during the day. Ever.
But this doesn’t have to be you. Today we’re going to go through some ways to take a break. We’ll also be expanding on the importance of breaks for mental health.
Check it out!
1. Make Sure you Get a Break
The first and most important step is making sure you get to take a break.
It may sound like a “no duh” that you’d get a break at work, but that’s actually not the case for a lot of employees. In the U.S. the Federal FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) doesn’t actually require employers to provide breaks. Rather, it’s the responsibility of each state to mandate how much break time employers have to give their workers.
And some states, like Alabama and Alaska only require employers to provide minors with breaks. Other states don’t require any breaks at all, for anyone (Looking at you Arizona >:|)
That all means you have to be your own best advocate in most cases when it comes to getting a break. Here’s how you can do that:
- Make sure you know the rules – Know your federal, state, and organizational policies for taking a break. This knowledge comes in handy when you have to take mental health sick days and get work accommodations for your mental health (i.e. being able to take more frequent breaks than your co-workers).
- Insist on taking a lunch break – Even if it’s the unspoken rule at your workplace to work through lunch – just don’t. Personally, if my blood sugar is too low from skipping meals or eating junk to get through the day, 9 out of 10 times, I have a severe panic attack. That’s because Hypoglycemia increases adrenaline and cortisol, producing anxiety. So, even if it makes you stick out like a sore thumb, make sure you get that lunch break.
- Keep the rules consistent when working from home – As a freelancer, I fall into this trap a lot. I’ll settle down to work and look up 4 hours later only to realize I literally haven’t moved. Yikes! It’s really easy to write off taking a break because you’re in the comfort of home. But you still need to follow the same routine you do at work by getting space from your work frequently and taking a least an hour lunch break.
2. Redefine What it Means to Take a Break
Admittedly, I had a pretty slim understanding on what “break” meant throughout most of my working life. Shoveling food into my face while I answer emails and flip through my phone is a break, right!?
Okay, then just what is a break supposed to look like?
Well, a good, healthy break’s got to cover your physical, emotional, and mental needs.
That means you should be getting up to move. Away from your desk. Whether that’s stretching, going to the gym on your lunch break, or taking a short walk doesn’t really matter. Anything you do to physically re-engage your body (that’s not labor) is going to fulfill this requirement.
Next up you should be emotionally distancing yourself from your work. This is kind of hard because if you’re working on something really cool (or something really stressful), it can be hard to let it go, even for a few moments. But it’s essential to give your brain some cool down time or you risk emotional overwhelm which can ruin your creativity, decision making, and productivity.
Some great ways to get emotional distance from your work:
- Meditation/mindfulness – taking a moment to breathe and refocus your thoughts is an awesome way to get emotional space. I’m a big fan of the Calm App, which has a variety of mini meditations to help you take a brain break, even during busy days.
- Engage with the outside – it can be helpful to speak to someone on the outside of your workplace through text, messenger or a phone call. Yes, I’m suggesting that you make a personal call from work it’s not the end of the world. Just do it responsibly in a way that doesn’t affect your work. If you can’t make personal calls or don’t feel comfortable doing so – try heading over to a different department and see what they’re up to.
- Set boundaries – Does your boss want you to attend a meeting at 5PM on a Friday? Block em. Does your co-worker want to gossip about that annoying client while you’re eating lunch? No way, Jose! Do your employees have your personal cell phone number and use it? Bye, Felicia. People are alwayyyyys trying to get your attention and that’s not always the best for your emotional health. Good boundaries are essential to get emotional space from project stress, work problems, and workplace emotional vampires.
And lastly, a break should take care of you mentally. This differs from the emotional part of a break. It’s less about setting boundaries and more about doing things to engage your brain.
As I mentioned above, flipping through FB isn’t a break no matter how good it feels in the moment. A good mental break should get the gears in your mind turning rather than shutting them down.
Ways to give yourself a brain break would be doing a puzzle, reading, playing a game (preferably one that makes you think), tinkering with a hobby, working out, or having an interesting personal discussion. These will help calm you down, increase dopamine production and refocus your mind so you can tackle the rest of the day.
3. Ways to Take a Break
Okay so we know why breaks are important, why you need to make sure you get one, and how to define what a break is supposed to look like. Now all that’s left is actually taking the break!
You’d think that’d be the easy part, but that’s rarely the case during a busy workday. Sadly, breaks often go by the wayside in favor of productivity.
But they don’t have to!
Here’s a few simple but effective ways to take a satisfying break:
- Listen and respond to your body’s cues: Historically, I’ve ignored my body’s cues to go to the bathroom or eat because I needed to keep working. As I’ve improved my mental health, I’ve learned to use those same cues as alerts to take a break. When I feel that hunger pang, I stop what I’m doing and go get something to eat. I’ve found this method really helpful to naturally get into the rhythm of taking frequent breaks.
- Set a recurring alarm: If you’ve got a job you tend to get absorbed in, try setting a recurring alarm to remind you to take breaks.
- Schedule mental health days in advance: As I said, I’m a workaholic. To keep myself from totally burning out at my restaurant job, I would periodically grab the request off book and schedule several long weekends or even weeks off way in advance. This helped me “automate” my days off and gave my employer plenty of time to fill the slots on the days I would be out.
- Eat lunch away from your desk: Have lunch with a friend or coworker in the break room. Go outside on nice days. Dine out. Do whatever you can to get away from your workspace during meals – your mental health will thank you!
- Make your workspace separate from your home space: This is essential for working from home. Have a designated work area that you go to each morning (not your bed!). If possible, try having a different computer for work than you have for personal use. I have a laptop for work and a desktop for gaming, that way I can put the laptop out of site out of mind when I want a break.
And there you go folks, all you ever needed to know about how to take a break!
Real talk, I can personally attest to the absolute necessity of frequent, meaningful breaks. Not too long ago, I had a very serious breakdown that landed me in the hospital. (Check out my story here).
My job at the time was incredibly emotionally draining and instead of listening to my body’s needs, I tried to push through.
I worked through lunches, stopped eating regular meals, and constantly worried about what I needed to do next. I was proud of my reputation as a workhorse. In the end, however, that hubris cost me my career.
So please, please, don’t be like me. You deserve a wonderful, satisfying career that doesn’t drain you emotionally. So take a break or two. You’ll never regret taking a break but you might just regret it if you don’t.
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