July 8, 2014

Smartphone ‘microbreaks’ may help productivity, K-State researcher says

Is goofing off on your smartphone at work good for the workplace?

Is goofing off on your smartphone at work good for the workplace?

Sooyeol Kim, a research scientist at Kansas State University, has not settled that question.

But Kim recently completed a study involving 72 workers.

He says the initial research shows that taking a smartphone break is good for employee well-being. And he says many employers might be intrigued by what he has found.

Kim, a doctoral student in psychological sciences, studied the work-break habits of 72 full-time workers over several weeks, from various industries, many of them office workers in jobs lasting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Taking “microbreaks” to check Facebook or play Angry Birds seemed to make them happier and refreshed, he said.

Everyone knows, Kim said, that vacations, evenings at home, and lunch breaks can refresh a person’s mind and improve their job performance.

“But nobody’s ever really studied how microbreaks during a work day can help also,” he said. “Everybody does it, but nobody’s ever studied it.”

But if this is good, how much of a good thing should it be?

“If I play a game for an hour or two at work, it would absolutely hurt my job performance,” he said.

But taking a mental break for a few minutes? Probably good.

Alicia Holloway, a long-time recruiter for many Wichita companies, thinks Kim’s findings jibe with what she’s seen in workplaces and heard from employers.

Everybody, including Holloway, takes small mental breaks at work and everybody needs that, she said. Most employers get that.

“Taking a little break – it’s like taking a mini nap,” she said. “You are fatigued, frustrated, tired, and bored, and you don’t want to do this task. So you take this little mental vacation, then go back to work.”

Employers needn’t worry about good employees doing that. “A good employee isn’t going to cheat,” Holloway said.

And those little breaks might not actually be true breaks from work, she said.

“My subconscious is still working that problem,” she said. “So when I take a break, maybe I see it from another angle.”

Holloway, the co-owner of Right Recruiting in Wichita, says she doesn’t hear much about employees goofing off excessively at work anymore.

Employers used to complain about that more, she said.

“They used to talk to me a lot about walking in and finding employees on Facebook, making personal phone calls, shopping online, and not getting the job done,” she said. “But a lot of that went away with the recession. Those employees by and large are not working there anymore. And I think employees since then have been self-policing. I don’t hear employers talking about it as much anymore.”

For his project, Kim and collaborators created an app that the study participants installed on their smartphones. It measured smartphone usage during work hours and found that the participants took smartphone breaks of about 22 total minutes a day. The breaks appeared to refresh them – important, Kim said, because it is probably impossible for people to concentrate on work for eight uninterrupted hours.

Microbreaks predate social media and smartphones, the university statement pointed out. People, long before smartphones came along, have always taken breaks to walk around, chat with co-workers or get a cup of coffee. Smartphones are another way to do that, he said.

One other twist his research found was that smartphone breaks are especially appealing to introverted people “who don’t want to interact with other people as much,” Kim said.

He said a second part of his research – whether employees hurt their job performance with excessive smartphone breaks – will likely be complete by October.

Contributing: Dan Voorhis of The Eagle

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