Are micro-breaks becoming a macro problem at work?


If they repeat the rort each afternoon, their employer pays them a day each week for nothing. Worse, hardworking staff must put up with colleagues who game the system by taking excessive micro-breaks that crunch productivity and affect wages growth.

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I’ve managed employees (unsuccessfully) who thought nothing of nipping out for 20 minutes for a takeaway coffee. Or lingered in a laneway with other chain smokers when they should have been working. Or watched a video on their smartphone on a toilet break.

It’s hard for busy managers to police the quantity and length of micro-breaks in white-collar workplaces or tell adults they can’t head out for a quick personal task. How demeaning (for managers and employees) to tell someone they can’t go to the toilet.

This is no trivial issue. Various United States studies have shown significant lost productivity from workplace time-wasting. US staffing firm OfficeTeam in 2017 released a study showing the average employee can waste more than eight hours a work week on activities unrelated to their job.

Put another way, some employees who work a 36-hour week could easily waste almost a quarter of that time. And we wonder why fewer companies want to hire full-time staff or prefer to replace them with robots who work 24/7.

The problem is when companies have unclear policies, or none, on workplace micro-breaks; do not communicate them well to staff; or enforce them. In many blue-collar workplaces, enterprise bargaining agreements spell out allowable breaks in detail. That’s less so in office towers.

I cannot recall any of my former employers having policies on micro-breaks. If you needed a good coffee, you went out and got one. The employer trusted staff to be reasonable with breaks and that mostly worked well. But some staff (and managers) flaunted the system.

Still, firms may need to rethink their policies on micro-breaks as pressure to lift productivity builds and as societal and demographic trends change. It may be that more, rather than fewer, micro-breaks are needed, although every organisation is different.

Years ago I worked as a labourer in a railway cement gang in summer, in between university semesters. A water break was permitted every 20 minutes or so to cope with searing heat. If temperatures keep rising, we’ll need to rethink break policies for outdoor workers.

As the population ages, and if we are serious about harnessing the talents of older workers, we might need more flexible micro-break policies, particularly for staff who are on their feet all day.

If we want to encourage more parents to return to work earlier after childbirth, we might need specific breaks that allow workers to check with their children’s carers. Or with elderly parents if workers are providing care or liaising with those who do.

As workplaces change, there could be more need for extra personal phone and coffee breaks – but policies should be spelled out. Credit:Shutterstock

If more work is done in coffee shops, perhaps a more flexible policy towards coffee breaks is needed. Who knows? And what should employees give back in return if they want extra, sanctioned micro-breaks? A slightly longer work day?

The point is, the workplace is changing but policies on micro-breaks in many firms are antiquated or remain a mystery.

Again, we don’t want silly rules for micro-breaks that kill workplace flexibility. Just clarity. Tell white-collar staff what breaks are acceptable and their usual length, within reason.

Better still, develop an organisation culture where staff know what’s right and wrong with micro-breaks, and the culture self-polices employees who game the system.

Just don’t let staff think they can take a cigarette/coffee/bill-paying/email/walk-around-the-block/smartphone break when they feel like it.

Fifteen minutes here and there sounds harmless, but over a year can add up to thousands of dollars of lost productivity for some workers.

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Tony Featherstone writes on Personal Finance specialising in Superannuation & SMSFs, Specialist Investments.

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