Ergonomics and Work Breaks – Helpful or not?

I recently read an interesting article regarding taking effective breaks at work.  This article stated that the most productive 10% of their surveyed population took a regular work break of 17 minutes out of every 52 minutes.  The authors surmised that this improvement in the productivity of the individuals who took work breaks was due to the fact that as people, we get bored easily, and as our boredom grows, our attention to our work similarly decreases, resulting in lower productivity over time, unless we take a work break.

Pomodoro Technique by Michael Mayer is licensed under CC by 2.0

I used to study classical piano performance at university, and when one practices for 5 plus hours a day, things can become monotonous and unproductive unless you have a plan.  In addition, the musical works one is learning (which are also many), are long and intricate and require a clear mind and direction.  My piano professor used to make me divvy up my piano practicing day into 30 minute blocks and then divide the musical works that I needed to learn and master across these blocks.  Then, strictly adhering to this schedule, I was required to practice for 25 minutes and then stop and take a 5 minute work break before continuing with the next 30 minute block and piece of work.

I used to think that I would never get anything done.  However, surprisingly, a lot of work was covered over time.  Following this method of taking work breaks, I used to succeed in learning a lot of difficult musical work, faster and better than I would’ve done, had I never followed his model and taken my work breaks.

This is pivotal, since many musicians (and office workers) tend to think that they need to get started with their work and then drive forwards until they hit that sweet spot of concentration and continue until they hit the wall of physical and mental fatigue.  We all know, however, that once you’ve hit that wall, your productivity takes a serious dive.

The problem with this approach to work is that you end up exhausting yourself so that after 2 or 3 hours, your brain is a rag and anything you do afterwards is unproductive and sometimes counterproductive.  When you’re tired and depleted like this, the other downside in addition to reduced productivity is that you also become prone to making mistakes.  This is because your mind is no longer clear and sharp, rather it is clouded by fatigue.

There are other studies that have been undertaken to determine the benefits of work breaks for office workers.  These studies looked at the optimal work break schedule as well as the effects of taking a work break on the participants.

Due to different study models, an optimum work break schedule is hard to pin point, however, some researchers recommend taking a 5 minute work break every half an hour, or 2 x 15 minute work breaks in your day, or 4 x 5 minute work breaks over the course of your day.  What was clear from the research was that it was very detrimental to your health and your productivity if you worked for 4 hours or more without taking any work break.

These studies also found, however, that taking work breaks also helped to improve productivity, reduce fatigue and  reduce phycial aches and pains.


Food for thought next time you feel that you’re far too busy to take a work break because of a deadline that you have to meet?  Perhaps, you might find it easier and faster to meet that deadline if you plan a few work breaks into your day?



P., Tucker. 2003. “The impact of rest breaks upon accident, risk, fatigue and performance: a review.” Work & Stress 17 (2): 123-137.

Galinsky T., Swanson N., Sauter S., Dunkin R., Hurrell J. et al. 2007. “Supplementary breaks and stretching exercises for data entry operators: A follow-up field study.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine 50 (7): 519-527.

Johnston V., Souvlis T., Jimmieson N.L., Jull G. 2007. “Associations between individual and workplace risk factors for self-reported neck pain and disability among female office workers.” Applied Ergonomics 39: 171-182.

Balci R., Aghazadeh F. 2003. “The effect of work-rest schedules and types of task on the discomfort and performances of VDT users.” Ergonomics 46 (5): 455-465.

Grimby-Ekman A., Andersson E.M., Hagberg M. 2009. “Analysing musculoskeletal neck pain, measured as present pain and periods of pain, with three different regression models: a cohort study.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 10 (73). doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-10-73.

Ergonomics – What is it and who is it for?

Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci
“Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci” by Hans Bernhard is licensed under GFDL-CC-BY-SA-all.

Ergonomics.  This is the new buzzword in corporates.  It’s been around for ages in the first world (Europe, Australia and the US).  In fact it’s even legislated overseas, that’s how important it is.  More and more it’s gaining traction here in South Africa and becoming a part of our health and safety culture.  So, what is it?

Simply put, ergonomics are involved when your physical environment is made to adapt to you, instead of you adapting to your physical environment.  No one size fits all.  We are all different.  We have different bodies made up of different size leg lengths, trunk lengths, arm lengths, hand and feet sizes.  We have different strength and flexibility capabilities.  We have different genders in the work place performing the same job, and all this will influence our ability to perform in our work environment.  The weight of a brick, box etc is constant, but our human factors involved in moving them are all different.  And these things need to be taken into account to optimize our productivity as well as our health.  The science of ergonomics does that.  It collates all the different human and environmental factors and looks for the best fit.  It’s not always perfect, but it’s better than all these factors being ignored.

When you use objects in your work environment, in order to apply ergonomic principles, your work environment needs to be adaptable and adjustable to the different humans engaging in it.  Think adjustable components rather than anything static (e.g. adjustable chairs, beds, car seats etc etc).

Read my post on driving posture and lower back pain. 

Be aware, however, that good biomechanics is also an important element to add to good ergonomics when you want to reduce the likely hood of you suffering any injury/pain caused by your interaction with your environment at home and at work.  What do I mean by good biomechanics?  I’m referring to the way that you USE your body when you work.  It doesn’t help that your work environment has been optimised to keep you safe, but you continue to use your body in its weakest movement patterns.  There are good and bad ways to move your body and these too need to be taken into account.  Taking lifting for example.  The way you use your body to lift an object is completely in your own hands.  You can use a good posture that makes you strong and keeps you safe, or you can use a sloppy, poor posture, that makes you weak and puts you at risk of an injury.

Read my post on how to use good posture to lift your children and avoid lower back pain.  

So, who is affected by this?  Well, everyone really: office workers, on the road salesmen and other drivers, delivery staff and warehouse workers, factory workers, farm workers, health carers, cleaners, housewives, parents etc..  Everyone is affected by ergonomics and the way that they use their bodies in their work and home environment.

In South Africa, awareness of ergonomics is slowly growing.  For too long we have underestimated the cost to society that poor ergonomics results in, such as lost productivity, injuries and medical costs.

So, how do we learn about and implement ergonomics for our daily lives?  Keep reading, I’ll cover this and more in future blog posts.