A recent paper titled “It Is Time to Get Some Rest,” by Manel Baucells, a professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business, and Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing used insights from the pacing and race techniques used in Olympic Sports to suggest how employees working under different conditions can manage their breaks to maximize performance and hence avoid fatigue, burnout and other overwork associated problems.

Mentally fatigued and overworked teams tend to experience greater probabilities of depression and physical health problems, lower life quality and satisfaction, and negative impacts on their family life.

Work can be modulated

Most athletes don’t use their full power all the time. They manage the exertion and energy to achieve an overall better result. In some cases this means to start high, followed by an intentional lowering of effort precisely calculated to save energy for a final sprint. To be able to manage the energy level along the task/Race can make the difference. If the athlete doesn’t learn to shift between a higher effort level and a lower, more conservative level of exertion, one of two things may happen: Either not have enough energy for a strong finish or have to much energy at the end that could have been better used during the whole race/task and still leave enough for a strong finish.

“Bacuells and Zhao suggest a similar “high-low-high” effort pattern for employees who can modulate the pace of their work.” By having a strong beginning and end of the day, but taking it a bit easier during the day. On longer days, the burst of maximum energy should be short with the goal of keeping a moderately high pace all day. Just like running a marathon. On shorter days, the maximum bursts can be longer with a mid-day break.

All or nothing

If you are in a customer support center, call center ou telemarketing among other áreas it is very hard to modulate your effort. These kinds of jobs require constant concentration and a high amount of mental tasks that require 100% of focus or taking a break. “Baucells and Zhao showed that the best distribution of effort is for workers to begin and end the day with “on” periods, but take breaks in between. Far from unproductive, breaks in these situations should be seen as investments in future productivity” sometimes it is hard for humans to recognize when you need a break.

The authors, “Baucells and Zhao show that, in their experience, working without breaks for 10 hours results in 15 exams graded. Allowing for three breaks, Baucells and Zhao find that the optimal plan is to work for two hours, take a 45-minute break, work for 105 minutes, take another 45-minute break, work another 105 minutes, take another 45-minute break and end the day with another two straight hours. Following this plan, the total working time drops to seven hours and 30 minutes, while the total output increases to 19 exams graded. The lesson is clear: optimal breaks reduce work time and increase output.”

Since it is hard to spot the signs of mental fatigue until it becomes extreme and has already affected productivity, this research suggests that team leaders would help their workers and the productivity by taking pre-emptive action and keeping productivity at a high while avoiding burnout altogether.

For the raising number of self-employed entrepreneurs and freelancers, this research shows the importance of the need for clear boundaries in daily schedules and avoiding putting long hours that yield lower output. “Self-employed workers, the authors suggest, might even consider starting work immediately upon rising in the morning, to take advantage of showering and breakfast as times to rest and reduce accumulated fatigue.”

“Reducing fatigue can increase productivity, reduce harm to workers, increase work satisfaction, lower turnover, and absenteeism, and ultimately increase profits.”