Self-Care Strategies for the Workplace

Rest & Productivity Go Hand in Hand

In an ever competitive workforce, the pressure to be constantly available and online is at an all time high. Even in companies like Distilled that offer flexible working and champion a 35 hour work week, the pressure to yield huge results and increase productivity is greater than ever. And if you’re like me, in order to produce those results, your self-care is often the first thing to go. 

Few people know how to optimize for productivity like CEOs and entrepreneurs. We asked startup founder and business owner Rand Fishkin, “what’s the one service you find extremely useful that most people don’t know about?” He answered, “Sleep. How have people not heard of this? It's amazing. You get 8 hours of it, and then you can suddenly work smarter and faster than people who brag about working 80 hours weeks. Amazing.”  

While you can’t always get all the rest you need at night, it is possible to fit more rest and self-care into your day. You can control how you manage your workday stress and productivity with one simple hack: take more breaks. And commit to taking them. 

There are plenty of good, scientifically-backed articles out there explaining why breaks are good for you (like this one from Psychology Today and this one from Business Insider) if you’re curious or still need convincing. There’s even a great article about how to stay positive at work by taking breaks from my colleague Chris Lewis. But I’m going to get right into the good stuff: which types of breaks will work best for you and how to make sure you actually take them. 

Taking Breaks at Work: Find the Type of Break That Works For YOU

Whether you work from home and can wear pajamas all day or need to wear a suit in a formal organization, you can find a self-care strategy that works for you. It should pair well with your job and environment, but be different enough from your work that your brain and body can relax. If you take a break just because you “know it’s good for you,” you’ll quickly stop making time for them, so bias yourself towards things you actually enjoy doing. 

I’ve broken down break-types into three simple buckets. You can mix and match or scale up or scale down depending on your individual job needs and how much time you have on a given day.  

Self-Care Strategies

1.Get Moving

If you have a mostly sedentary job, the best type of break you can take is simply one that involves you getting up from your desk. Even if you have a standing desk, something that moves your body will improve your circulation, decrease health issues linked to long-term sitting, and minimize eye strain if you allow yourself to look at objects in the distance while moving about. 

If you have 15 minutes or less, even walking to get water or taking a lap around the office can be hugely beneficial. If you have more time, trying to fit in mid-day fitness classes or short stretching or yoga sessions can boost your energy levels. Walking meetings are all the rage and if you can convince your colleagues to do a stand-up meeting literally standing up, your body will thank you for it. 

2. Get Outside

Getting outside is especially beneficial for folks who look at a screen all day. Even if you work in an urban area, some time with the sky is great for your eyes. This is also easy to add to your routine if your work attire is formal or uniformed and you struggle with trying to exercise during the workday. It works well for both introverts and extroverts as it’s easy to invite a colleague for a walk around the block with you, or just take some time to enjoy whatever nature is near you in privacy. As a bonus, studies show that time in nature is truly de-stressing for your heart

If it’s raining or you can’t leave the office, you can still make this break strategy work by changing your environment. If you have space, explore a different part of the building or if you work in a flexible co-working space, try changing desks. 

Pro Tip: While coffee-runs and snack breaks are a good excuse to get out of the office, try to avoid spending your whole break just purchasing food and eating it mindlessly, while you obsess about all the things you need to be doing when you’re back from “lunch.” That’s not so much a break as a food-fueled mental-planning session. 

3. Switch Gears

Say you’re pressed for time, you can’t leave the office, and you can’t get sweaty. Another way to take a break at work is simply switching gears. If you have a more active job or one that requires you to work with a lot of people in a lot of meetings, you can take mental breaks by switching to a new content area. Ideally, switch to something pleasurable and not just another type of work. Switching to a personal project, reading a book for pleasure, a craft like knitting, or even a short Netflix binge can greatly boost your morale. 

This type of break works especially well if your job requires high levels of dedicated concentration for long periods of time, such as with programming, accounting, rehearsing music, or other hard-focus activities. I love the oldie but good article which demonstrates that the most elite achievers are the most deliberate with their work periods and their leisure time. Switching gears can be a very deliberate way of organizing your day. 

Pro Tip: Unless you’re diligent about not getting distracted or procrastinating, this is probably not the best type of break if you work from home or are self-employed. 

Make the Right Break Fit in Your Schedule

Okay, now that you have some types of breaks that might work for you, how do you actually plug them into your busy day? 

Figure out which times of the day work best to take a break (and for how long)

Whether you have strict meal or rest breaks from your employer or state, or have a ton of flexibility in setting your schedule and working hours, you still need to think about what type of self-care works best for your schedule. 

Think about when you typically feel the most productive and when you feel the most bogged down. The next time you’re between activities or feeling fatigued, try one of these break ideas based on how much time you have. It’s okay to start small! 

5-30 Minute Break Ideas

  • Go for a short walk
  • Have a (healthy) snack
  • Listen to a podcast
  • Meditate and breathe (the Headspace app has sessions ranging from 3 minutes to two hours)
  • Short exercise or stretching (here’s a good article of stretches you can do at your desk)
  • Watch a video or TED talk
  • Use that craft or hobby: knit, journal, draw, doodle, design, Pinterest, play puzzles or games
  • Catch up with a friend or colleague

30-60 Minute Break Ideas

  • Sneak in a session at the gym or a class (many places are offering shorter lunch-time classes)
  • Walk to a destination - a new coffee place or lunch spot
  • Have your lunch in a nearby scenic area
  • Invite a colleague for a walk to play a board game / card game
  • Watch some longer videos
  • Make more time for your craft or hobby
  • Make plans with someone from another office or outside-of-work friend

*Some of these are may replace a lunch-break if you have a job where you can eat while working at other times.

Protect Your Break Time at Work

Congrats, you’ve figured out what type of break you want to try and when you’ll do it! But how do you prevent that time you carved out for yourself from being overridden?

Create the Habit

It’s so tempting if you’re “in the groove” or if a last-minute meeting pops up to immediately throw your break plans aside and just tough it out. That’s where creating the habit comes in. A good break is a self-care commitment that you make to yourself and just like riding a bike or learning any new skill, practice makes perfect. 

Yes, absolutely there will be times where other tasks have to be prioritized over your self-care at work. Breaks, by their very nature, need to be flexible. Unless you’re very lucky (or have a highly regulated schedule) you likely can’t take the exact same break at the same time of day every day. Things come up, life happens, priorities change. But don’t let your breaks always fall last in your priority list. Here are a few ideas on how to start keeping some time for you at work. 

Set a Calendar Reminder

Pencil in your breaks and help to indicate to others when you expect to be unavailable. Calendar events typically work for larger breaks or lunches, or if I’ve made plans to take my break with other people who can hold me accountable. 

This might work well for you if your work schedule has a great deal of routine so people start to know when you’ll likely be unavailable. Alternatively, you can toss in breaks on your schedule but adjust as the day moves on. I’ve been guilty of pushing a big break around three or four times as the morning evolves. Simply keeping breaks present on your calendar is a great place to start. 

Use the Pomodoro Technique

This method uses a timer (like the one on your phone) to organize your work. The semi-classic technique of breaking your work up into 25 minute increments is especially useful if you have a lot to slog through and need help maintaining your focus. 

Since this time management method naturally creates short breaks between increments of work (and a longer break of 20-30 minutes after four “pomodoros” or increments of 25 minutes), this is a super-fast way to pepper lots of breaks throughout your day. Not surprisingly, the motto of this time management method (like one of Distilled’s core values) is “work smarter, not harder” since its goal is to keep you from falling into the trap of multi-tasking. 

Structure Your Day to Protect Your Time

There are plenty of great articles to help you organize your day for optimal performance. But have you considered structuring your time to keep time for yourself? Whether you group similar tasks together or keep all your meetings in a certain part of the day, remember to structure your day in a way that protects your most productive hours. 

Taking Breaks at Work: Key Takeaways

Recently, our VP of London, Jess Champion, in a generous act of vulnerability, sent an all-company email to remind us about self-care: “I’ve been feeling burnt out of late. A bit sleep deprived. Pretty stressed.  ... I’ve noticed recently that my personal coping mechanism in these situations is to DO ALL THE THINGS. Because then I’m totally in control...right?! … I thought that if I shipped all the frogs, nailed the to-do-list, made a bunch of spreadsheets and organised ALL THE THINGS, then I was looking after myself. I reckon it’s probably a classic lie that many of us tell ourselves in times of stress but, for me at least, it certainly ain’t effective.” 

If you’re like me, Jess, and many others, make time for self-care at work and take your breaks. These are the key self-care strategies to remember when preparing to take breaks at work.

  1. Figure out what type of break works best for you
  2. Determine how much time you typically have/what times of the day you can take breaks
  3. Create the habit by planning your break times

Are you a manager trying to protect your team’s time? Or just great at keeping time for yourself? Comment below to share your break-challenges or best tips for in-office self-care!

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