How important are breaks from your computer?
“Take breaks. Little and often. Ideally every 20-40 minutes”.
This is a familiar mantra espoused by health and safety professionals; therapists and others concerned with the well-being of colleagues and clients using computers for long periods in their occupation. Why? Does the evidence support the dogma?
Sitting has been demonised over recent years, with hyperbolic statements like ‘sitting is the new smoking’, being used to grab headlines and sell standing desks; however, it is not without reason that this concern has risen. Sedentary lifestyles have been linked to a number of serious health conditions, including ‘all-cause mortality’, and although these risks reduce with exercise, the ill-effects of sitting for more than 8 hours per day, are not sufficiently compensated by exercise and those that sit for 9-11 hours are at particularly high risk. This is, and should continue to be, the main drive for incorporating breaks from computers, to reduce overall sitting time in the day, with a goal of getting below 8 hours (including the commute and sitting at home); however, we typically consider breaks more often, in their role in preventing aches and pains or musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders.
This is because symptoms such as back pain are immediate and people are more easily influenced and concerned by short term risks than, comparatively, more serious but slower developing, long term issues. So, we will focus on this here and the questions I want to explore are:
- Do breaks prevent MSK disorders in those that have no issues (are pain free)?
- Do breaks reduce symptoms in those that have MSK disorders already?
- Does the activity undertaken during breaks, make a difference?
- Is there an optimum frequency and/or duration of breaks?
So, let’s look at some evidence…
One great source of evidence is the Cochrane Library, which is an independent group that publishes ‘systematic reviews’. This means that they explore the research on a given topic, and evaluate this in terms of the quality of the studies and the results, and then provide some conclusions. Last year they carried out a review of the impact of differing work break schedules on the prevention of MSK symptoms in healthy individuals. A full text of this review can be found here. I would recommend jumping to the plain language summary, starting on page 4. Essentially, my main takeaways from this are…
In healthy workers (and this is key, the studies only included people with no symptoms), there is no significant difference in the incidence of MSK disorders when additional breaks are taken, though, interestingly, additional breaks (30 second passive breaks every 20 or 40 minutes) may improve productivity and work performance. The frequency of additional breaks (high or low), also made no difference and when comparing the type of break (active or relaxation), again, no differences were found. None of the studies reviewed looked at the length of breaks specifically.
Remember, these conclusions don’t mean that breaks do not prevent MSK disorders, just that there is no high quality, repeatable clinical evidence for this, at the present time.
Some studies, including one from the International Journal of Research and Public Health in 2018, demonstrate increased discomfort with sitting at a computer, surmising that hip and thigh discomfort generally becomes significant at around 90 minutes and lower back pain at around 2 hours. There is evidence that this impacts cognitive function and productivity, but no evidence that this leads to long term issues. A longer study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, spanning 4 weeks, looking at data entry workers, who were given an additional 4 breaks of 5 minutes duration, per shift reported reduced discomfort and eyestrain and also showed an improvement in data-entry speed so that overall productivity was maintained.
There are no long-term studies investigating breaks or the lack thereof in the prevention of MSK disorders.
What about for those already in pain?
Another systematic review of research conducted in the Journal, Applied Ergonomics, in 2018, showed that there were some positive benefits of breaks for managing discomfort though the quality of the research was low. Better quality research demonstrated that active breaks, including postural change was more effective in managing pain and discomfort than passive ‘relaxation’ breaks and, encouragingly, that breaks had no detrimental impact on productivity. It should be noted that the maximum study length was 2 hours with break times ranging from 20 seconds to 30 minutes, so whether or not this information can be extrapolated over a day, week or months, is unclear.
Is there an optimum frequency and duration?
This is a tricky one as there is little research looking at this. One study in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, done back in 1997, looked at a couple of break schedules over the course of a working day, measuring stress via ‘psychophysiological monitoring’ (sweating; temperature etc.) as well as discomfort and muscular strain. They concluded that more frequent shorter breaks (7-8 minutes every 50) were more effective in the morning, but longer, more infrequent breaks (15 minutes every 100) were better in the afternoon. They also noted that stress measures may have increased as a result of the rigidity of the break schedules, so some flexibility over when breaks are taken is probably useful.
The research seems to be pretty clear: that taking breaks improves productivity or at least does not cause any detriment, so if for no other reason, than to improve your productivity, you should try to incorporate breaks.
If you are currently pain free, then a lack of breaks will likely lead to some physical discomfort, but this is unlikely to be a major factor in any long-term musculoskeletal difficulties. Age, lack of exercise, nutrition, genetics, poor sleep and other factors are far more relevant.
The speed of onset and severity of symptoms will be affected by the ergonomics of the workstation, including the adjustability and comfort of your chair and the height of your screen and you should move whenever you experience symptoms. These are most commonly felt in the hips, buttocks and lower back but also the upper back, neck and shoulders. Upper limb problems are less common but can be equally severe and debilitating if ignored early on.
If you have persistent symptoms, then breaks are more important. Short frequent breaks in the morning and longer, less frequent breaks in the afternoon seem to be preferable and you should incorporate movement. The ability to work in different postures, such as standing (sit-stand desks) may be of benefit, but this does not negate the need to move.
Regarding the frequency of breaks, the optimum is unclear as there is little research looking specifically at this and it is probably related to a number of factors, including individual attention span; the nature of the work and how well it lends itself to breaks; visual demands of the work and duration of the shift, among other factors. As above, letting symptoms be your guide is probably not a problem with regards to managing musculoskeletal strain, however there are productivity benefits to taking more regular scheduled breaks.
The most important reason for taking breaks is the prevention of long-term health issues associated with sedentary behaviour – sitting for more that 11 hours per day. If you have an hour commute to and from work and sit for at least an hour in the evening at home, then you only have to remain seated for 8 hours in the office to hit the 11 hour mark. Given that many office roles exceed an 8 hour day and the lunch hour is now closer to 30 minutes on average and is typically spent seated for the majority of the time, finding ways to not be seated at work is critical. This is probably the best case for purchasing a height adjustable desk, but justifying the cost as a preventative strategy is usually far more difficult than if managing acute difficulties that are immediately impacting quality of life and work.
An information sheet discussing some of the barriers to breaks, including the perception that it will reduce productivity, office culture and others can be found here.
Write a comment
Guy Osmond (Friday, 31 July 2020 18:21)
Great piece, Antony. Useful to see some systematic research references I hadn't seen before and some new (to me) information such as the effect of different length breaks morning and afternoon.
Jo Hattan (Friday, 07 August 2020 15:21)
Very interesting Antony. Anecdotally, most clients I have assessed report taking less breaks whilst working from home (due to COVID-19) than in the office. Although in theory one has more flexibility to take breaks at home, in practice, there are less “natural” breaks than in work, for example, chatting to a colleague at a nearby desk, getting up to go to a meeting, making drinks etc.
Antony (Friday, 07 August 2020 15:43)
Jo. I agree people do generally report taking fewer breaks when at home but in my experience, they also tend to report fewer difficulties. Even when workstation ergonomics are less optimal. I think this may be because they can go for a walk during lunch, or lie on the floor/bed and stretch out and are possibly more relaxed with a greater sense of control over their time. I have no evidence for this, just my thoughts.