Why don’t workers take breaks?

University study reveals top 3 reasons employees keep on going – despite downsides

Why don’t workers take breaks?

Everybody needs to take a break from work sometimes.

However, while previous studies have suggested that taking breaks can be beneficial to workers, many are still choosing to go on non-stop.

Why? Heavy workload (33 per cent) is their top reason for doing this, finds a new report from the University of Waterloo.

This is followed by workers’ desire to keep their momentum (27 per cent) and to complete work rapidly or within their deadline (25 per cent). 

However, there can also be sudden changes in the work situation that force workers to go on, including a client calling just when workers are about to take their break (10 per cent), a supervisor calls on them to go over some projects just when they’re about to take their break (eight per cent).

There are also the cases where people are afraid they will be fired (six per cent) or they just can’t say no when they are needed (six per cent).

The research “provides insights into how employees and managers can make more effective use of breaks at work, potentially improving both well-being and performance,” says James Beck, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Waterloo.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of employees who have worked from home full time the past year say they feel more productive there, according to a report released in 2022. However, more than one-third (39 per cent) of employees occasionally, rarely or never take lunch breaks amid equal or higher job demands, according to another previous study.

Reasons to take breaks

There are a lot of reasons for workers to take breaks, according to the University of Waterloo’s study, based on two surveys: one of 107 employees about their reasons for taking a break and not taking one; and another of 287 employees twice daily over five days about their sleep quality, fatigue, performance concerns, workload, and the number of breaks they take each day.

Fatigue (45 per cent) is the top reason workers take breaks, followed by physiological needs (30 per cent), such as needing to eat food or use the restroom. Workers also take breaks due to perceived decrements in performance, or a desire to maintain high levels of performance throughout the day (28 per cent).

Others take breaks because of negative emotions such as annoyance and frustration (21 per cent), and a desire to detach (18 per cent). 

Other reasons for taking breaks include the desire to socialize with coworkers (six per cent) and other non-work-related pre-occupations (five per cent).

“We recognize that it may not always be possible for employees to take more breaks, but if employers can promote employee well-being by addressing the conditions that can make work unpleasant, they may be able to reduce the number of breaks needed,” says Dr. Vincent Phan, first author of the study, which he led as part of his doctoral thesis in industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Waterloo.

Work breaks should be seen as recovery opportunities that foster employee well-being and do not detract from performance, according to a previous report from Simon Fraser University.

Employers can help

Breaks can reduce or prevent stress and exhaustion, re-energize you, improve performance and productivity, and reduce the risk of sleep disorders and cardiovascular disease, according to Wellness Works Canada, a not-for-profit association. A relaxing break helps you recover mental and physical function to your baseline.

To ensure that workers take breaks, employers can do the following, it says:

  • Lead by example and take your breaks. 
  • Use appropriate language to encourage employees to take a break without making them feel criticized.
  • If applicable, set a quiet space for employees to take breaks or practice mindfulness comfortably.
  • Provide access to wellness apps like Calm, Headspace and Breathe for employees to support their breaks. 
  • Recognize and reward people who do take breaks.
  • Provide break ideas or opportunities for employees.


Latest stories