Mental Space: Short Breaks With Friends Can Transform Your Day

 recently was introduced to BreakTogether Founder Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom, who happens to also live in our wtf backyard, Portland, Maine. She’s leveraging her years of wellness and employee advocacy work to help change the game of workplace productivity and engagement. Her secret? Simple breaks for fun, both with your teammates and solo.

What inspired you to start your company BreakTogether and what’s the research behind your approach?

In the past fifteen years I have led wellness and advocacy programs for employees that exceeded target health outcomes and employee engagement levels, yet something was still missing. I witnessed colleagues and friends who were the picture of health, yet they were also tethered to their desks/phones for five, six, eight hours at a time and exhausted at the end of the day. How did we get to this place in our work culture?

I participated in the Peak Work Performance webinar series led by Ron Friedman, PhD (Best Place to Work). I listened to over 20 experts discuss productivity, mindfulness, and happiness in the work place. Mindful work breaks were mentioned in every single conversation and it turns out the science behind work breaks and productivity is over 100 years old. Sydney Chapman released Hours of Labour in 1908, which proved that productivity went up when work weeks were limited to 40 hours. Henry Ford was the first in the US to adopt this science in the 1920’s and he included mid-morning and afternoon work breaks. His productivity and profitability went up. Harvard, Stanford, and UPenn have all released updated studies in the past decade confirming similar results with knowledge-based workforces.

One unchanging fact in the work equation is that we are all human. We have spent 30 years improving modes of connection, and have seemingly lost the art of disconnecting, which is essential for health and creative thinking. I launched BreakTogether to help people and organizations to have conversations and begin to make essential changes in the work day for employee health and business prosperity.

Those of us who are more introverted may be inclined to break alone. Why break TOGETHER?

You are absolutely correct that some of us need complete “alone time” in order to recharge. The most effective behavioral change programs all include some form of connection with others or team activities. So you might have a weekly check-in with a friend or coworker to talk about how you were able to take breaks during the week and what that felt like. The “together” can be virtual.

How do YOU take breaks?  OR Do you have a secret productivity “hack” that you’re willing to share?

Haha, breaks have always been a challenge for me, especially as my responsibilities increased over the years. For a while, my schedule felt like it was happening to me and then we rolled out a couple of programs at my last company that really made a difference. We started by eliminating the 1-hour meeting. Most every calendar will allow you to schedule a 45 minute or 20-minute meeting. You can say a lot in 5 minutes (think TED talks), we should be able to move most any topic ahead in 45. Use those 15 minutes for yourself; for at least 2 of those breaks, step away from your desk.

I live in Portland, Maine and there is always something to explore in short bursts of time. Google your neighborhood for “Things to Do” and you’d be surprised at what comes up. If you aren’t in a place to get outside, set up a playlist on your phone with songs that make you feel good. Step away from your desk and get your groove on, or load a couple of Jimmy Fallon or Carpool Karaoke episodes and laugh for 5 minutes. If you only have 60 seconds, picture your favorite Zen location and take 5 deep breaths thinking about that image. If you truly break away without trying to do something else at the same time, you will feel the benefits immediately.

Are you tracking the results of your work? Do you have proof for potential new clients?

Absolutely. We develop specific metrics for each company, depending on their particular challenges. Some of the things we measure are turnover, unplanned absence, disability and workers comp over time. We use Gallup metrics for employee satisfaction and employee surveys after the break experiences. If you are paying attention to your employees, you will feel the difference in just a few weeks. One of the most surprising things I have observed is when companies are able to create breaks with groups of employees. It is amazing the connections that are made and problems solved between people who normally do not interact.

In terms of proof. I have data from my own program successes and we have decades of outcomes as referenced before. The science is solid; the most difficult component is behavior change. Behavioral change is possible, particularly when we work on it together.

In your opinion, what’s most exciting development in the future of work?

Every time I learn about a new approach to rethinking how we work it is energizing. There is great opportunity to make things better for the next generations in terms of design thinking about physical space, and paying attention to mental space. It’s exciting that many companies on Fortune’s Best Place to Work list are adopting these practices; further evidence of the positive impact to bottom line.

One interesting development is the concierge approach to supporting employees at work. Making the workspace and amenities so comfortable that people can literally work all hours. While I like this thinking in terms of supporting employees with their busy lives, we need to encourage breaks from work. I want to see continued use of technology to support our lives at work and at home. The most exciting thing to me is that the boundaries are fading. Technology is allowing us to be more present outside the office walls.

Lisa Whited