How 'micro' breaks throughout the day can help decrease work burnout—'flow + rest = success'

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As employees are facing all-time high burnout rates from workplace stress, companies and researchers are increasingly looking into preventing this from taking a toll on their workforce.

One such company is Exos, a performance coaching company, which teamed up with psychologists from Hofstra University to conduct a study on how they can leverage the concept of "flow," a coveted optimal state of consciousness with high performance and satisfaction often reported by high achievers, in the workplace. They found that having short periodic breaks dedicated to exercise, meditation and goal setting can help increase flow while working, which in turn can prevent burnout. 

The big picture here, according to Exos' senior director of applied neuroscience Dr. Chris Bertram, is that the choice employers are often faced with between the well-being of their employees and the bottom line of their business is a false dichotomy. Bertram says that by using these interventions designed to build flow, employers can simultaneously increase productivity while decreasing stress.

Flow decreased stress and increased engagement

For an entire month, 150 Exos employees were split into two groups: one group kept working the way things were and the other group received what the researchers called flow-supportive interventions. These interventions included basic education on flow and how it might increase your productivity at work.

The intervention group was notified three times a day to have a goal-setting break where they would clearly outline what they wanted to achieve in the next hour and 20 minutes of work. This is called a flow-trigger.

"[Having clear goals] doesn't necessarily put us straight into flow but it's one of those first steps that gets us focused on a task, and flow follows focus," Bertram said. "Flow can be an intentional practice but a lot of people think of it as just this thing that happens magically, when all the stars and the universe aligns and we get this crazy performance out of ourselves."

On top of this, the employees in the flow group were also encouraged to have 10-15 minute breaks sprinkled two to three times throughout the day. In these strategic microbreaks, employees would either go through mindfulness meditations or light exercise. The exercise was not necessarily a workout but enough to get the employee out of their chair and moving. 

Everybody in the study was given a FitBit to wear so that the researchers could track their heart rate and sleep quality, which they used to calculate Heart Rate Variability, a physiological indicator of stress based on the participant's bodily response. Throughout each day, participants were asked to rate how much stress and flow they felt that day and how engaged they felt with their work. 

At the end of the month, Bertram and his team found that their interventions doubled the amount of reported flow and quadrupled the amount of reported engagement with their work. This increase in flow led to a decrease in reported stress and stability in the physiological symptoms.

On the other hand, the employees in the control group reported having stable levels of stress yet showed increasing stress symptoms in their body akin to people going through periods of extreme physical or emotional duress. Participants in the flow group left work feeling less drained and actually had the time after work to rest and recuperate, preparing themselves to enter the next working day with even more focus and energy.

"Rest and recovery, even in these micro amounts, pay a huge return on investment," Bertram says. "There is this common expression that 'stress + rest = success', well we are changing that a bit into "flow + rest = success."

Rest is important for flow

The findings of the study imply that incorporating these short 'flow breaks' into the workday can help prevent burnout by giving employees the chance to recover from stress.

Bertram describes flow as part of a cycle that starts with a period of struggle. It is similar to going on a run, in which the first few minutes your body struggles to keep up with the energy expenditure until you hit a rhythm and experience a relief from the struggle. Bertram says this relief point is when you can drop into flow.

"Flow is a high energy state so there's an energy cost to being in flow," Bertram says. "A very important part of the flow cycle is to put energy back into the system so that when the next bout of struggle comes around, you're hitting it from a better foundation, a more recovered place." This period of rest and exercise puts the depleted energy back into the system, enabling you to re-engage with your work, Bertram says.

Exos was so pleased with the results of the study that they have added flow interventions into their company's culture and performance code. After seeing the importance of rest with this study, Bertram says that they are now looking into switching to a four-day workweek, as they team up with Adam Grant and the Wharton School of Business to conduct a study on its effectiveness.

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