Sep 5 / Amanda Slinger

The Power of Rest: 5 ways to encourage employees to take a break

The notion and benefits of taking a break from our work is nothing new, but what may be surprising is the influence of switching off (in daylight hours) on our ability to sleep at night.

But why is it so hard to switch off, and what can organisations do to create a sense of agency for employees to say ‘I need a break’ or for employees to just go ahead and take that break when they need it?

Creating a culture where staff feel supported and empowered to take a break requires much more than a short-lived push with a ‘Wellbeing at Work’ promotion for the quarter, instead it’s something that organisations (and individuals) need to work on every day and on many levels.

If you or your team aren’t taking enough breaks to sufficiently recharge and refocus, here are some ways to help them build a team who are confident and capable to put their foot on the brake and pause.

1. Confirm boundaries with flexible working

Whilst this sounds like an oxymoron, even flexibility needs boundaries!

9 to 5 jobs are becoming less and less of the norm and flexibility is where we’re heading (and what’s needed), but without boundaries work and the rest of our lives become one.

This is especially true if you’re ambitious, conscientious, love your work, or have trouble breaking out of flow state when you’re in it. Boundaries need to be agreed by the organisation and by individuals.

Policies can provide a framework for setting boundaries around working arrangements, but they aren’t the solution. As a leader, it’s far more powerful to initiate conversations with your team about expectations with flexible work arrangements.

These conversations can include a cap on the number of hours to be worked each day / week, as well as the number of hours worked in a 12-hour period to reduce fatigue, working in daylight hours to ensure sufficient and appropriate timing of sleep, and responding to emails outside of planned work.

2. Embrace what’s realistic and sustainable

With endless project lists and finite hours in the day, the lure of adding more into our already overloaded schedule is dangerously fuelled by ambition, rapidly emerging (and exciting) technologies and future-focused opportunities.

Of course, there’s going to be times when late nights, working on the weekend, and 2am Zoom meetings are needed. But when this becomes a consistent theme each week, it’s just not sustainable without something giving or breaking.

If your teams are kicking goals but no one is smiling, or there are signs that they’re starting to drop the ball, it’s time for some diagnostics on what is realistically and sustainable achievable by each person in your team.
Start by looking at the composition of your teams and priority strategic business objectives, all the while framed by individuals personal career goals.

Look to off-load projects from some of your team members and surprisingly, it’s not always and only the senior leaders who are struggling with workloads. Your talented and ambitious rising stars are at greatest risk of burning out as they eagerly take on more and don’t necessarily have the skills to manage high workloads and respond to stress.

Rather than worrying about the apparent loss of restricting what you ask individuals to do and the costs associated with adding additional team members picking up the slack, instead enjoy the increased capabilities, retention, performance, productivity of your teams and ultimately the profitability of the business.

3. Create psychological safety

Creating psychological safety around taking a break means that your teams know they WILL be supported and that it’s safe to say ‘I need a break’ or to just go ahead and take that break.

This takes consistent messaging across the organisation about pausing every day.
  • It’s seen in policies and in work practices. 
  • It’s embodied in what leaders say and do about the importance of rest. 
  • It’s shown by the actions taken by organisations to change work practices (and change-out leaders) that don’t support the rest and recovery mission.
But even with all this in place, there’s no guarantee that individuals will take breaks.

This was highlighted by Melanie Silva (MD and VP at Google – Australia / New Zealand at a recent Agents of Change event hosted by Sonder in Sydney… “I can say it, the culture can allow it, and we can have posters up in every toilet and office saying ‘if you need a rest, take a rest’. But there are people who haven’t built the confidence or capability to say ‘I need a rest’.

Reluctance to take breaks can be deep-rooted in personal values, beliefs, work ethics and habits.

Encourage your staff to reflect on what’s holding them back from taking breaks:
  • Recognise insecurities - not all organisations are there (yet) when it comes to creating psychological safety for employees to take a break. 
  • Understand the impact – how being ‘constantly on’ affects employee performance, health and wellbeing. 
  • Spotlight laziness (gently) - taking a break requires more effort than staying at your desk!
  • Put the ego in check - yes, the world will keep turning when they step away from their desk.
  • Step aside - taking some much-needed leave gives others an opportunity to step up and shine.

4. Lead with a break

As it turns out, taking a break doesn’t have to mean engaging the hand brake completely, and has many forms and more possibilities than you or your team might think.

Traditional daily breaks such as morning tea and lunch breaks, whilst increasingly rare, are powerfully stacked with a food focus. A lunch break is often more about the reward of food and relieving hunger than about taking a break from work. KitKat had the right idea with their ad campaigns that have been around for over half century, “Have a break, have a KitKat”.

These traditional work breaks are essential for our overall wellbeing, and whilst they may not be timed at the well-worn hours of 10am, 12noon and 3pm they are important opportunities to refuel and recharge from the toil, micro-stressors, and sometimes the tedium of our working day.

Another type of break is a short pause away from your desk that allows a quick reset and a change of both visual and cognitive focus, great for your eyes and great for resetting your intentions when you get back to your desk.

And a really important type of break to take, and to be seen taking, is when we need to shake off the cortisol load from an intense situation, event, meeting, or conversation so we can access our parasympathetic nervous system. This requires a disruptive move such as swapping out your phone and laptop for some fresh air and sunshine.

5. Find the full stop

These should be no-brainers, but unfortunately they’re not!
  • Take the lead from KitKat and create ‘break habits’. You may be interested to read about habit loops by looking at the work by Charles Duhigg or James Clear.
  • Go home when the working day is done and not when everything is done. Because, the reality of our working worlds is that rarely will everything be done!
  • Take your weekends as a break from work rather than as an extension to your working week.
  • Use your holiday leave when it accrues instead of saving it for… who knows what?... a not so busy time! Why wait, your time is now.


Whilst this could easily be a conversation about performance, it’s really a conversation about mental health, and in the words of @Steven Worrall (MD Microsoft (ANZ) and founding Chair of the Corporate Mental Health Alliance “mental health and wellbeing is a topic for everyone… we need to learn and grow together.”

How can you support your team to build the confidence and capability to take a break, to put their hand up, to practice switching off, and making it a habit to walk out the door? Because when they do, they’re more likely to show up the next day and return with energy, motivation, and smiles on their dials!

In fact, as I’m writing this, my dog is nudging my arm to remind me it’s time for his dinner… and it’s a reminder for me to take a break right now! How about you?

#holiday #habits #wellbeing #rest