When you have a million tasks to do during the day, it can be hard to fathom stopping to just breathe for a second, much less stepping away for lunch, a quick stroll, or simply just doing nothing. A new report shows it’s a common issue, with only a third of those surveyed saying they disconnect from work in some way during the workday. The findings also reported that nearly half of respondents felt like they needed to work long hours to get ahead, and that more than a third felt like they needed to be available for work 24/7.
Those are troubling statistics, says Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas, especially since not taking a break and overworking set up the perfect environment for burnout.
That’s why we turned to Gilmore to get some insight on why taking a break is not only important to your mental health but your physical health as well, and how to prioritize disconnecting — yes, even when your plate is full at work.
The Downside to Not Taking Any Downtime
While you may think skipping your lunch or not stepping away from your desk to regroup may be harmless at the moment, in the big picture, it does not benefit you or your employer.
“One of the basics of self-care and professional resiliency lives in taking time away from work,” Gilmore says. “But, nowadays, there is far more pressure to be reachable, to be responsive to emails and voicemails, to finish up projects on the weekends and evenings, and to blur the boundaries of home and work, especially if you find yourself working from home.”
But the consequences of always being on and available to your work are higher rates of burnout, increased risk of depression and anxiety, increased risk of physical ailments like high blood pressure and decreased immunity, and a desire to leave your work or even your profession, says Gilmore.
In addition to the issues highlighted above, trying to do too many things at once without your full focus and attention on one singular task, ala multi-tasking, actually adds up to doing a lot of things poorly. So while you may think you’re being efficient with your time, maybe hoping to knock a few tasks out in order to free up some time to step away, it can cause your focus and productivity to suffer, which may actually require more time to get a task done.
Taking a break gives you a much-needed opportunity to reset and refocus after spending several hours working, focusing, or sitting through meetings. And while the word “break” does imply walking away from your workspace, it also means taking the time to check in with yourself.
“The point of a break is to reset and you won’t be able to do that when a break is filled with more work,” Gilmore says. “Sometimes we need to reframe our thoughts about taking a break. Taking this time is a long-term investment in yourself. Short term, working through a break may give you another 15-minute head start on the next project, but long term it’s more likely to lead to you burning out.
“In the course of a year, 15 minutes a day is about 90 hours,” she adds. “You can either work an additional 90 hours for free (because you aren’t being paid to work through a break!), or you can invest 90 hours into your overall wellbeing.”
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
OK, so you know taking a break from work is important, but it’s easier said than done. You don’t always enjoy eating your lunch from your desk — if you don’t skip it altogether — but at times it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to break and get your tasks done. So how can you prioritize stepping away to take a break, whether it’s for lunch or just to recollect? One word: boundaries.
A boundary is your internal meter of what is acceptable and what is not, but Gilmore cautions that this is not the same as a “work ethic,” which is often praised because it implies a high level of engagement, productivity, and commitment to completing the work.
“Our boundaries often take a backseat in work cultures that prize work ethic over everything else, but we will often burn out in these environments,” Gilmore explains. “Our professional boundaries can and should include taking breaks, not working during lunch, speaking up if the workload requires regular overtime to complete, having times of the day that you are available and times that you are not, and taking time off.”
Identifying What’s Important to You
Setting boundaries first comes with understanding your non-negotiables from your negotiables, and it won’t look the same for everyone.
For instance, it may be important to you that you have the flexibility to log in later than normal in order to get your children ready and drive them to school, instead of putting them on the bus. On the other hand, it may be important to you that you have an hour blocked off during the day so you can go to that workout class you really enjoy. Or maybe you want to be able to log off by a certain time every day so that you can walk your dog while it’s still light out. If it’s important to you, and not having the freedom to do that thing would make you resentful, unhappy or unfocused, by all means, speak up.
“Author Nora Roberts famously said, ‘the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic and some are made of glass,’” Gilmore explains. “Some will shatter when dropped and some will bounce. The non-negotiables of work and personal life are the glass balls that need extra care. The negotiables are the plastic balls, and even the glass balls, that can be caught by someone else. But they cannot ALL be glass.
“If you find yourself in a situation or work culture that treats everything like a glass ball, it’s time to speak up and set boundaries or even look for a workplace that is better suited to you. The job market is in the hands of job seekers and there are countless opportunities to find a work culture that has professional boundaries and respects yours,” Gilmore adds.
Gilmore’s advice to setting a strong boundary is to make it well known. For example, when you’re done checking email for the day, you can set an ‘Away Message’ that will send an automatic response to the sender to let them know they can expect a response by the next business day. Additionally, your voicemail message can state that after 5 p.m., all messages will be checked the next business day.
“You can be professional, courteous, and responsive with appropriate boundaries,” she adds.
We can’t ignore that there may be a bit of a gender disparity when it comes to taking the time you need to recharge. In fact, the respondents in the study referenced in the beginning were entirely female, something Gilmore says doesn’t shock her.
“The ‘Second Shift’ for women is no secret. Many women are not going to work, putting in eight hours, then going home for personal time. Often, they are already in the second or third part of their day by the time the workday even begins,” she explains. “If skipping a break or working through lunch could mean leaving on time or early, then many women will choose this option because after-work hours often include caretaking, another job, school, family and extracurricular events, and home responsibilities. The opportunity to get a jump start on the ‘Second Shift’ will leave many women opting out of scheduled breaks, unfortunately.”
When’s the last time you honored yourself, your time and your wellbeing, instead of focusing on what’s next, or that stressful email, or even the dishes in the sink you need to wash? Taking some time to release the demands might be hard at first but giving yourself even a small break from being “on” will equal big benefits down the line.
“Time away is an investment. That saying couldn’t be more true,” Gilmore adds. “Breaks reset our day, time away from work restores us, professional boundaries keep us in the field for longer, and self-care keeps us healthier. Every one of these things improves our lives and makes us more of an asset to the workplace.”
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.