WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 1
Lyubykh, Z., Gulseren, D., Premji, Z., Wingate, T. G., Deng, C., Bélanger, L. J., & Nick, N. (in
press). Role of work breaks in well-being and performance: A systematic review and
future research agenda. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
© 2022, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may
not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite
without authors' permission.
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 2
Role of Work Breaks in Well-Being and Performance: A Systematic Review and Future
Zhanna Lyubykh1, Duygu Gulseren2, Zahra Premji3, Timothy G. Wingate4, Connie Deng5, Lisa
J. Bélanger5, and Nick Turner5
1 Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University
2 School of Human Resources Management, York University
3 University of Victoria Libraries
4 Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University
5 Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary
Zhanna Lyubykh, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6587-2200
Duygu Gulseren, https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0039-7354
Zahra Premji, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6899-0528
Timothy G. Wingate, https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0800-6004
Connie Deng, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2225-4437
Nick Turner, https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8369-931X
We have no known conflict of interest to disclose.
We thank Natalya Alonso, Joshua Davis, Steve Granger, Alyssa Grocutt, Sandy
Hershcovis, Carlo Isola, Catie Phares, Sophie Samek, Kaylee Somerville, Natalie Valle, and
Julie Weatherhead for their assistance and comments on earlier versions of this paper, one of
which we presented at the 19th European Congress of Work and Organizational Psychology,
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 3
Turin, Italy. Funding from the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business, MITACS,
and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada supported this research.
Correspondence concerning this article can be sent to Zhanna Lyubykh, Beedie School of
Business, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada,
V5A 1S6. E-mail: Zhanna_Lyubykh@sfu.ca.
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 4
Recovery from work is a critical component for employees’ proper functioning. While research
has documented the beneficial effects of after-work recovery, it has focused far less on the
recovery that happens while at work in the form of work breaks. In this review, we
systematically review available empirical evidence on the relationship between work breaks and
well-being and performance among knowledge workers. Doing so enables us to (1) integrate
studies from multiple disciplines, (2) propose a conceptual framework for categorizing work
breaks, and (3) provide a future research agenda for studying the role of work breaks in
employee well-being and performance. Using Cochrane’s guidelines, we review observational
and intervention studies (N = 83). Based on the extant research, we propose that work breaks can
be described and classified in terms of five features: initiator, duration, frequency, activities, and
experiences. The result of our review is an integrative model that comprehensively captures the
relationship between work breaks and well-being and performance outcomes, as well as the
mechanisms and boundary conditions of these relationships. We conclude by proposing avenues
for the future study and practice of work breaks.
Keywords: Performance, recovery, systematic review, well-being, work breaks
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 5
Role of Work Breaks in Well-Being and Performance: A Systematic Review and Future
Employees spend almost half of their waking hours at work (Tudor-Locke et al., 2011).
And while work provides many benefits to employees (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2000; Jahoda, 1982),
it also demands—and thus depletes—their physical and psychological resources. Not
surprisingly, research has demonstrated that recovery is critical for employees’ proper
functioning, including their well-being and performance (e.g., Karabinski et al., 2021; Sonnentag
et al., 2022). The importance of work breaks in facilitating this recovery has long been
recognized by researchers (e.g., Oehrn, 1896), and many countries have passed legislation
mandating work breaks (e.g., U.S. Department of Labor, 2021). Yet, our understanding of work
breaks remains limited given the multidisciplinary and fragmentated nature of the topic, with
studies on work breaks originating from a wide array of disciplines, including occupational
health psychology (e.g., Krajewski et al., 2010), management (e.g., Trougakos et al., 2014),
nursing (e.g., Rogers et al., 2004), ergonomics (e.g., Boucsein & Thum, 1997), and
physiotherapy (e.g., Barros et al., 2019). A better understanding of work breaks therefore
necessitates integrating extant findings.
Accordingly, our goal in this paper is to systematically review and integrate the available
evidence across multiple disciplines about the role of work breaks in two broad employee
outcomes: well-being and performance. Further, we focus specifically on knowledge workers, a
rapidly increasing portion of the workforce (e.g., Scully-Russ & Torraco, 2020). We aim to make
several theoretical contributions and extend previous work (e.g., Scholz et al., 2019; Wendsche
et al., 2016, 2017) in three main ways. First, we integrate diverse findings to address the fact that
work break research originates from multiple disciplines. Moreover, although there are several
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 6
informative reviews on work breaks, they focus primarily on a specific occupation (e.g., nursing;
Wendsche et al., 2017), a specific study design (e.g., intervention studies; Karabinski et al.,
2021), or recovery processes that happen outside of work (e.g., Bennett et al., 2018). As such,
findings on the role of work breaks remain isolated and largely constricted to their respective
disciplines, which may impede the development of theoretical insights and practical solutions
relevant to all disciplines. We solve this problem by comprehensively reviewing and integrating
past research to offer well-rounded guidance for future research.
Second, we contribute to existing theory by synthesizing findings across various
operationalizations of work breaks and generating a novel conceptual framework of the same.
Because work breaks have been operationalized in a variety of ways, it can be difficult to draw
conclusions about their overall conceptual nature. Thus, we draw on Sonnentag et al.’s (2017)
definition of a work break, as well as several theories applied to the work-break context—in
particular, the effort-recovery model (Meijman & Mulder, 1998), conservation of resources
theory (Hobfoll, 1989), the job demands-resources model (Demerouti et al., 2001), ego depletion
theory (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), attention restoration theory (Kaplan, 1995), and affective
events theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996)—to provide an in-depth review of what work breaks
entail for knowledge workers. From these foundations, we can identify and categorize the key
components of work breaks into a conceptual framework.
Third, we examine the implicit assumption that work breaks are beneficial to employees
(in the form of employee well-being) and organizations (in the form of increased performance)
by reviewing how different types of work breaks relate to these two outcomes. Work breaks may
entail a range of recovery activities and/or experiences (Sonnentag et al., 2022), not all of which
are positive. In addition to offering theoretical insights into which break activities and
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 7
experiences are most beneficial for knowledge workers, this aspect of our review provides
practical guidance for organizations. “Taking a break” implies that the employee will not engage
in work-related activities during this recovery opportunity. Some employers may see this aspect
as problematic, especially in organizational and national cultures that are credited with valuing
work performance and achievement above workers’ well-being (Hofstede, 2011). By weighing
the costs and benefits of different forms of work breaks, this review sheds light on these tensions
to guide organizations toward healthier and more productive workplaces.
Work Breaks, Well-Being, and Performance of Knowledge Workers
Work breaks are defined as recovery opportunities that may involve recovery activities
and/or experiences (Sonnentag et al., 2017, 2022). Recovery activities represent employees’
actions (or lack thereof) during a work break (Sonnentag et al., 2022). For example, employees
may exercise, browse social media, or sit quietly as forms of recovery activity. Recovery
experiences represent employees’ psychological states during a work break, such as detachment,
relaxation, mastery, and control, all of which may help recuperate one’s resources (Sonnentag &
Fritz, 2007). Recovery activities and experiences are interdependent and often co-occur
(Sonnentag et al., 2017). Further, employees need allotted time within their work context to
facilitate recovery (Sonnentag et al., 2017) and suspend their work activities during a work break
(Trougakos & Hideg, 2009). In this way, work breaks conceptually overlap with work
interruptions—periods of time when employees do not engage in work-related activities (Jett &
George, 2003). However, interruptions represent “an unexpected [emphasis added] suspension of
the behavioral performance of, and/or attentional focus from, an ongoing work task” (Puranik et
al., 2020, p. 817) whereas work breaks are expected, being either intentionally taken by the
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 8
employee and/or intentionally scheduled by the employer. As such, expectedness is an attribute
that differentiates work breaks from other related constructs, such as interruptions or distractions.
We focus on two outcome categories: well-being and performance. We draw on past
research (Warr, 1987) to adopt a broad definition of employee well-being as “the overall quality
of an employee’s experience and functioning at work” (Grant et al., 2007, p. 52). This definition
encompasses various aspects of well-being including physical (e.g., musculoskeletal disorders),
psychological (e.g., exhaustion, stress), and job (e.g., engagement) well-being. We define
performance as behaviors and actions that an employee exhibits or achieves that are aimed
toward accomplishing organizational goals (e.g., Dalal et al., 2020), including subjective and
objective assessments of these behaviors and actions (Bommer et al., 1995). This
conceptualization of performance encompasses mandated activities that are defined in one’s job
description (i.e., task performance) and discretionary activities aimed at supporting coworkers or
organization (i.e., contextual performance; Borman & Motowidlo, 1993). It also includes
outcomes of performance—that is, the consequence or result of the employee behaviors, such as
sales figures, number of successful surgeries (Sonnentag & Frese, 2002), or productivity (Cortina
& Luchman., 2013).
Examining these outcomes in the context of knowledge workers offers unique benefits in
terms of wide applicability and a plethora of relevant findings. Hence, our review focuses on this
fast-increasing portion of the workforce (e.g., Scully-Russ & Torraco, 2020). We define
knowledge work as work that depends on specialized theoretical and analytical knowledge gained
via formal education (Drucker, 1994). Knowledge work comprises a wide variety of occupations
characterized by esoteric knowledge (Starbuck, 1992) and task ambiguity (Alvesson, 1993, 2001;
e.g., scientists, engineers, accountants, nurses; Prem et al., 2017). Knowledge workers often have
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 9
relatively flexible work schedules (Grant et al., 2011) and they may easily forgo work breaks
despite actual availability of breaks as mandated by labor legislation, union agreements, or
employment contracts. Due to unique features of the tasks involved in knowledge work (e.g.,
task ambiguity, higher-level thinking; Jacobs, 2017; Starbuck, 1992) and of knowledge work
design (e.g., autonomy), researchers (e.g., Prem et al., 2017) have suggested that the experiences
of stress and recovery are likely different for knowledge workers than for other forms of workers
(e.g., call center workers, data entry workers, construction laborers, and truck drivers). Based on
the same logic, we hold that the forms and effects of knowledge workers’ breaks are likely to be
different from those of other types of workers and should be studied independently.
Why Do Work Breaks Relate to Well-Being and Performance?
Researchers have examined recovery processes through the lens of several
One cluster of theories focuses on employees’ resources. Although
these theories differ in their scope, context, and intentionality of recovery processes, a core tenet
among them is that work consumes employees’ resources and may therefore ultimately cause
strain. Hence, to maintain or improve well-being and performance, employees need work breaks
to recover from work. Below we provide a brief overview, including the commonalities and
differences, of the four most prominent resource-based theories: the effort-recovery model
(Meijman & Mulder, 1998), ego depletion theory (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), conservation
of resources theory (Hobfoll, 1989), and job demands-resources model (Demerouti et al., 2001).
First, the effort-recovery model (Meijman & Mulder, 1998) suggests that work imposes
certain demands on employees. To meet these demands, employees expend their psychological
and physiological resources. When work demands are removed, employees return to their
While we review the most used theories, we acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list of theories used to link
work breaks to well-being and performance.
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 10
baseline level of functioning. Employees recover when they remove work demands (e.g., by
changing the environment or detaching from work) and experience strain if they do not (i.e., if
the exposure to work demands is continuous, without recovery), with the latter leading to
impaired well-being and hindered performance. Employees can prevent this impaired
functioning if they stop working. In other words, it is sufficient to stop working to facilitate
recovery. However, these recovery opportunities must happen on a regular basis to avoid strain.
Overall, employees experience effort to meet work demands and opportunities for recovery (i.e.,
work breaks) in a cyclical manner to maintain their functioning.
Similarly, according to ego depletion theory (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), individuals
have a limited pool of resources for the purposes of regulating behaviors. Compared to the effort-
recovery model, however, ego depletion theory focuses on a narrower concept of resources—
namely, individuals’ mental resources. Each time an employee engages in a work-related
activity, they deplete their mental resources, which may ultimately lead to strain. A depleted
state impairs individuals’ ability to self-control, hindering their performance. To avoid depletion,
employees need to restore their pool of resources, which recovery activities and/or experiences
can facilitate. Like the effort-recovery model, ego depletion theory suggests a cyclical nature of
resource losses and gains (Trougakos et al., 2014) during which employees experience periods of
effort expenditure and recovery.
Focusing on a relatively broader set of resources that employees have at their disposal,
conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 1989) holds that individuals have an innate
motivational need to protect their resources and obtain new resources. Unlike the effort-recovery
model or ego depletion theory, according to which employees may simply stop working to
recover from expended effort, conservation of resources theory views recovery as a more active
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 11
and motivational process (see Karabinski et al., 2021). To recover from stress caused by work
demands, employees need to engage proactively in recovery activities that help them restore
depleted resources and gain new resources. Thus, the recovery process is deliberate, and
individuals may value different resources (Hobfoll et al., 2018). Like the effort-recovery model
and ego depletion theory, conservation of resources theory suggests cycles of recovery to “offset
resource loss” (Hobfoll et al., 2018, p. 106); without such recovery cycles employees may spiral
into impaired functioning.
The job demands-resources model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007; Demerouti et al., 2001)
posits that any occupation encompasses a set of job demands (i.e., job aspects that require an
expenditure of physical and/or psychological efforts) and job resources (i.e., job characteristics
that help employees reach their goals, achieve personal growth, or reduce job demands). This
theory is specific to the occupational context. According to the job demands-resources model,
exposure to job demands depletes employees’ physical and psychological resources, leading to
impaired well-being and performance. Job resources, on the other hand, may facilitate better
well-being and performance, and employer-provided work breaks can serve as one such resource
for employees. In this way, job resources play an important role in mitigating the negative effects
of job demands on employees’ outcomes. Later developments of the job demands-resources
model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2018) also acknowledge cycles of gains (e.g., recovery) and losses
(e.g., exhaustion) that work in tandem to exert influence on employees’ well-being and
The above resource-based theories are agnostic about the nature of recovery processes as
they neither make explicit predictions about the types of recovery (e.g., Meijman & Mulder,
1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) nor specify a broad list of possible recovery options (e.g.,
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 12
Demerouti et al., 2001; Hobfoll, 1989). Contrastingly, two other theories—attention restoration
theory and affective events theory—focus more on the nature of recovery itself. The first,
attention restoration theory (Kaplan, 1995), provides some guidance on the type of recovery
experienced. Specifically, this theory emphasizes nature, suggesting that exposure to nature helps
restore mental resources and facilitate recovery experiences, which in turn improve well-being.
The second recovery-focused theory, affective events theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996),
provides a unique perspective on recovery processes. It proposes that work breaks may foster
post-break resources by increasing positive affect and decreasing negative affect. In turn, these
affective states have implications for employees’ well-being and performance.
Taken together, the reviewed theories suggest that (a) recovery opportunities are critical
for fostering well-being and performance, (b) certain contexts (i.e., nature) may facilitate
recovery, and (c) affect can serve as a post-break resource. Based on this theoretical review, we
integrate empirical knowledge from a variety of literatures to understand common forms of work
breaks discussed in past research, how these forms relate to the well-being and performance of
knowledge workers, and what questions remain unanswered in relation to work breaks.
Multidisciplinary Literature Review
We followed guidelines for conducting systematic reviews published by Cochrane
(Higgins et al., 2011) and reported results in accordance with the PRISMA guidelines (Moher et
Literature Review Method and Scope
The population of interest included knowledge workers. The intervention was defined as
breaks taken during work time. This included break activities (e.g., micro-breaks, beverage or
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 13
meal breaks, or any other activity intended to be used as a break) and experiences (e.g., mastery,
control). A comparison criterion was optional, and could include the absence of breaks, differing
length of break, or alternate break activities and/or experiences. The outcomes of interest
spanned a range of well-being and performance indicators. We focused on positive and negative
manifestations of physical, psychological, and job well-being indicators. Performance indicators
included both subjective (e.g., self-reports) and objective (e.g., data entry accuracy) measures as
well as task and contextual types of performance.
We included studies that met the following criteria: focused on breaks taken during work
time, sampled knowledge workers, had an observational or intervention design, measured at least
one of the outcomes of interest, and published in English. We excluded studies that were
simulations, data entry or laboratory studies, studies done with student populations, studies
conducted with children, qualitative studies, studies that did not measure one of the outcomes of
interest, or studies that were published in a language other than English.
Information Sources and Search Strategy
We conducted a comprehensive literature search in the following databases (over the
following dates): Business Source Complete (via EBSCO, 1886 to June 4, 2020), ABI/Inform
(via ProQuest, 1971 to June 4, 2020), Medline (via Ovid, 1946 to June 4, 2020), Embase (via
Ovid, 1974 to June 4, 2020), APA PsycInfo (via Ovid, 1806 to June 4, 2020), Scopus (1788 to
June 4, 2020), and Web of Science core collection (Science Citation Index-Expanded: 1900 to
June 4, 2020; Social Sciences Citation Index (1900 to June 4, 2020); Arts & Humanities Citation
Index (1975 to June 4, 2020); Conference Proceedings Citation Index – Science (1990 to June 4,
2020); Conference Proceedings Citation Index - Social Sciences & Humanities (1990 to June 4,
2020); and Emerging Sources Citation Index (2005 to June 4, 2020).
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 14
Two of the authors created a sensitive two-concept search strategy (i.e., work breaks and
relevant outcomes). The search strategy incorporated subject headings and keywords. We
searched keyword terms in the title, abstract, and author-supplied keyword fields. We combined
concepts using Boolean operators. We did not apply language filters in the searches. The search
was created using the building block method. Before conducting the full search, we tested search
strategies against pre-selected seed articles. Supplemental Materials A include search strategies
for all databases. We downloaded and de-duplicated search results using Endnote X8.
Additionally, we hand-searched conference programs and proceedings of the following
conferences from 2015-2018: Academy of Management, American Psychological Association,
Canadian Psychological Association, European Association of Work and Organizational
Psychology (EAWOP), and the International Labour and Employment Relations Association.
We also searched the conference proceedings of the Society for Industrial and Organizational
Psychology (SIOP) from 2015 to 2021. We searched the websites of the following organizations:
Towers Watson, Mercer, Manulife, Sunlife, Society for Human Resource Management,
Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, Buffett National Wellness Services, HealthMine,
International Foundation of Employing Benefits Plans, and Fidelity. Finally, we completed
forward and backward searches of all included studies as well as key review articles on the topic
(i.e., Geurts & Sonnentag, 2006; Karabinski et al., 2021; Kogi, 1982, 2000; Muzet et al., 1995;
Nachreiner et al., 2010; Rosekind et al., 1995; Ruch, 1928; Sonnentag et al., 2017, 2022;
Trougakos & Hideg, 2009; Tucker, 2003; van Berkel et al., 2014; Verbeek et al., 2019;
Wendsche et al., 2016, 2017).
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 15
We conducted study selection in two stages. First, we completed screening using the
titles and abstracts (Stage 1). Second, we used full-text articles for screening (Stage 2). We pilot-
tested the study selection process for Stage 1 with 50 records to establish initial inter-rater
agreement and clarify eligibility criteria. The process was completed independently by two of the
authors, with conflicts resolved by discussion and consensus. We used a similar process for full-
text screening. We report the study selection process in the PRISMA flow diagram (Figure 1).
We developed a comprehensive data extraction form that included seven broad
domains—aim of the study, study population and setting, methods, participants, reported
measures, results, and limitations—to extract data from identified articles. Two authors
independently extracted data from each article. We first conducted a pilot data extraction with
four randomly selected articles. After the pilot data extraction, the research team met to discuss
any discrepancies. Finally, two authors independently extracted data from the rest of the articles.
Overview of Papers Included in This Review
Our search resulted in 83 articles (which included 87 samples). Supplemental Material B
contains a summary of each study. Table 1 presents summary statistics for the included studies.
Insert Table 1 about here
Out of 87 samples, 50 used observational and 37 used intervention study design. The
observational designs included cross-sectional (n = 24), experience sampling (n = 24), and time-
separated/longitudinal study (n = 2) designs. Intervention studies were represented by both
independent measures (between-group design; n = 13), repeated measures (within-group design;
n = 22), and mixed design (a combination of within- and between-group design; n = 2).
Publication years ranged from 1994 to 2022, with more than two-thirds (n = 61) of articles
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 16
published in or after 2011, suggesting a growing interest in the topic. Samples were collected
from various countries including the United States (n = 27), Germany (n = 11), Japan (n = 6),
Netherlands (n = 6), Finland (n = 5), Australia (n = 4), and South Korea (n = 4).
Conceptualizing Work Breaks
Research on work breaks has focused on both employer-initiated rest periods, such as
lunch breaks (e.g., Hakro et al., 2019), and self-initiated breaks (e.g., Trougakos et al., 2014; von
Dreden & Binnewies, 2017). Employer-initiated work breaks represent recovery opportunities
that are explicitly incorporated into workers’ schedules, including legally mandated rest periods.
As such, the initiator of work breaks is an important feature. We therefore use initiator to capture
the origin of work breaks. To recover from work demands and avoid depletion, employees may
take a break (Meijman & Mulder, 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) either during employer-
provided rest periods or during regular work time (i.e., chosen by the employer). The distinction
between the two types of breaks is not always categorical and there is a certain degree of overlap.
For example, employees may choose to forgo their lunch break, or companies may provide
flexibility around when employees take their breaks.
In the reviewed articles, operationalizations of work breaks ranged from a dichotomous
measure (e.g., Min et al., 2020) to the length of work breaks (e.g., Arakawa et al., 2011), the
number of breaks (e.g., Geiger-Brown et al., 2004; Lipscomb et al., 2002), the frequency of work
breaks (Berman & West, 2007), the recovery experiences during or immediately after work
breaks (Bosch et al., 2018; Coffeng et al., 2015; Demerouti et al., 2012), and break activities
(Kühnel et al., 2020; Trougakos et al., 2014; von Dreden & Binnewies, 2017), including micro-
break strategies (e.g., Kim et al., 2017; Schulz et al., 2017; Zacher et al., 2014). Drawing on
work break-related theories (Demerouti et al., 2001; Hobfoll, 1989; Kaplan, 1995; Meijman &
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 17
Mulder, 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996), we propose that
employees take breaks while at work with a certain frequency, each break has a duration, and
each break may involve experiences and/or activities that help replenish employees’ resources.
A work break involves a temporal component, or duration. This duration can range from
a few minutes (e.g., Abdelrahman et al., 2017) to hours (e.g., González Chapela, 2015). Further,
the pattern of recovery opportunities may vary for individuals (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2015). As
such, employees may engage in work breaks with varying frequency. By combining the elements
of duration and frequency, employees are likely to engage in unique patterns of work breaks. For
example, some may take frequent short breaks, whereas others take one large break during their
workday. While work breaks represent a recovery opportunity, this opportunity might take
different forms in terms of activities and/or experiences that help employees restore their
resources (Demerouti et al., 2001; Hobfoll, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). For instance, employees might
detach from work (e.g., Bosch et al., 2018), engage in physical exercise (e.g., Barros et al.,
2019), check their emails (Fritz et al., 2011), or browse social media (e.g., Kühnel et al., 2017;
Syrek et al., 2018). In the following sections, we use these five features of work breaks to guide
our overarching framework and apply it to the existing evidence on work breaks among
Integrative Framework of Work Breaks
As noted, research on work breaks and employee well-being and performance spans
several areas, theoretical perspectives, and research methods, including both observational and
intervention studies. We present an integrative framework of work breaks in relation to employee
well-being and performance that summarizes the current state of the literature (see Figure 2).
Insert Figure 2 about here
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 18
Initiator of Work Breaks
Several factors may influence whether a knowledge worker takes a break and who
initiates that process. Attitudes toward work breaks capture an employee-related factor, while
ability to take a work break may constitute both an employee-related factor (e.g., perceived
ability to take a break) and an employer-related factor (e.g., structuring rest periods).
Attitudes toward work breaks. Knowledge workers generally have positive attitudes
toward work breaks, including perceptions that work breaks can improve their performance,
replenish energy, and provide the social benefits of interacting with colleagues (Corvo et al.,
2020; Hakro et al., 2019). In sum, employees view having work breaks as important to their
health and performance (Nejati et al., 2016). However, these positive attitudes toward work
breaks are not universal: in a sample of managers, Berman and West (2007) reported that less
than half of managers think that work breaks can improve their own performance. Similarly,
while knowledge workers rate their attitudes toward breaks as above average, there is a high
degree of variability in these ratings (Engelmann et al., 2012). Taking a break as a team may bear
a cost, as knowledge workers perceive it as laborious to “get everybody back on deck”
(Engelmann et al., 2012, p. 441). Further, attitudes and preferences about work breaks vary
across cultures (Corvo et al., 2020). For example, employees in the Southern Mediterranean
countries view leaving (vs. remaining in) their workplace for lunch as more beneficial, compared
to employees in other European countries. Overall, knowledge workers do not share a universal
attitude toward work breaks, and managerial position and cultural differences capture important
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 19
Ability to take a work break. Engaging in work breaks requires time that could
otherwise be spent working. Although removing work demands is critical for recovery (Meijman
& Mulder, 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), many knowledge workers report not having
regular work breaks (Min et al., 2020), not taking their scheduled work break (Berman & West,
2007; Hassan et al., 2020; Nejati et al., 2016), or perceiving that their breaks are insufficient
(Munabi et al., 2014; Sharma et al., 2014). The absence of breaks during working hours relates to
higher levels of stress (Hassan et al., 2020), and shortened or incomplete breaks are associated
with higher burnout and emotional exhaustion (Russell, 2016). In contrast, adherence to work
breaks can foster better well-being outcomes (e.g., decreased emotional exhaustion, cognitive
irritation, and sleeping problems; Tanner et al., 2017; increased flow; Bringsen et al., 2011).
Research shows that organizational interventions can provide knowledge workers with
the ability to take a break by introducing unstructured break periods. Provision to take a work
break is generally positively related to both physical well-being (e.g., reduced body discomfort
and physical strain; Galinsky et al., 2000, 2007; increased physical activity; Taylor et al., 2016)
and psychological well-being (e.g., improved mental and emotional health; Boucsein & Thum,
1997; lower levels of subjective tiredness; Mitra et al., 2008; reduced stress; Engelmann et al.,
2011). However, employers need to exercise caution as providing an overly rigid work break
schedule can result in increased psychological and physiological arousal (i.e., electrodermal
activity; Boucsein & Thum, 1997).
The effects of knowledge workers’ ability to take a break extend beyond their well-being,
and include improved concentration (i.e., Engelmann et al., 2011) and even some task
performance indicators at the department level (Mitra et al., 2008). Even though taking a break
requires time, a study conducted on surgeons found that engaging in a break did not extend the
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 20
overall operation time (i.e., preserved level of performance; Engelmann et al., 2011). In
summary, consistent with tenets of resource-based theories (Meijman & Mulder, 1998; Muraven
& Baumeister, 2000), the ability to take a break is critical for employee well-being, does not
have an adverse impact on performance, and may even improve some performance indicators.
Yet, several factors might influence knowledge workers’ ability to take a break. First,
gender may play a role, as women are more likely than men to indicate not having enough work
breaks as a stress-related factor (Smith et al., 2009). The effects of the ability to take a break on
well-being are also contingent on the type of employment (i.e., part-time vs. full-time; Bringsen
et al., 2011). Further, organizational context plays a key role in perceived ability to take a work
break, with higher levels of health climate relating to more perceived autonomy to take work
breaks (Kim et al., 2022). Finally, adherence to work breaks seems to be particularly important
for full-time workers; in a sample of part-time workers, however, it was associated only with
reduced emotional exhaustion, and not with reduced cognitive irritation or sleeping problems
(Tanner et al., 2017).
Work Break Duration
Work breaks vary in duration, which is closely intertwined with the type of break taken.
Structured work breaks, such as lunch breaks, take on average 15 minutes per shift (Min et al.,
2020), with most employees taking less than 30 minutes for lunch (Geiger-Brown et al., 2004;
Min et al., 2010). Self-initiated work breaks are also relatively short, similarly taking about 15
minutes (Berman & West, 2007). Studies that examine the duration of social media breaks report
that the time per work hour spent on social media for nonwork purposes is relatively modest
(average of 4.54 minutes in an hour); however, this time adds up to a substantial amount when
considered over the entire workday (Kühnel et al., 2017; Syrek et al., 2018). Together, these
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 21
findings suggest that the duration of a work break is connected to the specific activity and/or
experience that the break involves.
The effects of work break duration are mixed. While it appears that taking a longer work
break may improve medical-related task performance (e.g., Rogers et al., 2004), most reviewed
studies did not find a positive relationship between work break duration and knowledge workers’
task or contextual performance (e.g., medication errors; Min et al., 2010; job-related accidents;
Kirkcaldy et al., 1997, 2002; organizational citizenship behaviors; Hunter & Wu, 2016). Further,
most studies did not report a significant relationship between break duration and well-being of
knowledge workers (e.g., emotional exhaustion, somatic symptoms; Hunter & Wu, 2016;
fatigue; Waltz 2017; recovery; Coffeng et al., 2015; depressive symptoms, depressive disorder,
anxiety, somatization; Geiger-Brown et al., 2004; stress; Sharma et al., 2014). Some types of
long breaks (i.e., split shift breaks4) also show mixed effects. On the one hand, a split shift
schedule is positively associated with sleeping (important for well-being) and time spent working
(important for performance); on the other hand, this schedule relates to higher levels of role
overload for women (González Chapela, 2015).
Several explanations for these mixed findings can be found in the extant literature. First,
the relationship between work break duration and outcomes might be explained by other
variables. For example, longer work breaks result in better patient safety, fewer medication
errors, and fewer falls with injuries among patients through improved nursing care (Min et al.,
2010). Another possibility is a curvilinear effect of work break duration. In other words,
knowledge workers need sufficient time to recover but after a certain point, taking a longer work
4 A split shift break typically refers to a schedule in which employees work for a certain number of hours in the
morning (e.g., 5 hours), have an extended lunch break (e.g., 2 hours), and then work for additional hours (e.g., 3
hours) in the afternoon/evening.
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 22
break may diminish their well-being and performance. Notably, however, Hunter and Wu (2016)
tested this proposition and did not find support for a U-shaped relationship between work break
duration and increased post-break resources.
As a further explanation a study conducted by Lei et al. (2019) illuminates a potential
boundary condition for the relationship between break duration and outcomes. The authors found
that while having a longer period for recovery opportunities may lead to reduced well-being and
performance, enjoyment of breaks mitigates negative effects on well-being (i.e., fatigue).
Further, the timing of the break matters as shorter breaks are more effective for improving
psychological well-being in the early afternoon, while longer breaks have a greater impact in the
late afternoon (Boucsein & Thum, 1997). In sum, the effect of work break duration on well-
being and performance is contingent on other factors, and duration alone may provide only
limited information about work breaks’ effectiveness.
Frequency of Work Breaks
More frequent work breaks can improve the psychological well-being of knowledge
workers (e.g., reduced need for recovery; Coffeng et al., 2015; increased vigor; Waltz, 2017;
reduced psychological distress; Hurtado et al., 2015). Moreover, there is some evidence that
more frequent work breaks of 10 minutes or more positively relate to physical well-being (i.e.,
lower levels of back-related musculoskeletal disorders; Trinkoff et al., 2006); however, this
relationship needs further empirical investigation as it was not replicated in other studies (e.g.,
Lipscomb et al., 2002).
Findings for the performance criterion tend to be less conclusive. While some studies
showed that more frequent outdoor breaks relate to higher productivity (Nejati et al., 2016),
others did not support this relationship (Trinkoff et al., 2007). Consistent with empirical evidence
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 23
from the effects of work break duration, the type of work break might serve a boundary
condition for the effectiveness of work break frequency (Coffeng et al., 2015; Hunter & Wu,
2016). While self-initiated short work breaks positively relate to well-being, more frequent
longer breaks do not produce the same effect (Coffeng et al., 2015; Hunter & Wu, 2016). In
conclusion, the pattern of recovery opportunities in terms of frequency, duration, and the
interaction of frequency and duration has implications for the well-being and performance of
Activities and Experiences During Work Breaks
Next, we review the various activities and experiences that can characterize knowledge
workers’ breaks. Given that one of the most studied types of work breaks, micro-breaks (Fritz et
al., 2011), incorporates both activities and experiences, we dedicate a separate section to this
Activities during work breaks. Work break activities are what employees do during
their breaks. These activities may take many forms, from browsing social media (e.g., Syrek et
al., 2018) to exercising (e.g., Galinsky et al., 2007), taking a nap (e.g., Chang et al., 2015),
socializing with colleagues (e.g., Krajewski et al., 2010), or even interacting with a therapy dog
(Machová et al., 2019). The subsections below cover the most studied activities across the extant
Social media breaks. Social media usage is arguably the most prevalent work break
activity, with 97% of knowledge workers engaging with social media during their work breaks
(Syrek et al., 2018). Social media breaks can have both positive and negative effects on well-
being and performance. For example, the use of social media positively relates to work-nonwork
balance (Kühnel et al., 2017) and vigor (Waltz, 2017). However, using social media during a
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 24
work break also bears a cost as this activity can decrease creativity (Kühnel et al., 2017) and
reduce work engagement (Syrek et al., 2018). Relatedly, employees who use smartphones during
their work break have higher levels of emotional exhaustion than those who take conventional
breaks (Rhee & Kim, 2016). Further, the timing of social media breaks serves as an important
contingency for its effectiveness: while nonwork social media use is associated with lower
concurrent work engagement, it relates to higher work engagement one hour later (Syrek et al.,
2018). Overall, while social media is a prevalent type of work break, its effects are inconsistent
as it can both boost and hinder employee outcomes.
Exercise breaks. Engaging in physical exercise during a work break may lead to
increased well-being among knowledge workers. Exercise break interventions demonstrate that
this activity has potential to improve an array of physical well-being indicators, such as shoulder
strength (Barros et al., 2019; Hallbeck et al., 2017; Ren et al., 2019), increased physical activity
(Brown et al., 2014; Carr et al., 2016; Michishita et al., 2017b; Taylor et al., 2016), reduced pain
(Irmak et al., 2012; Lacaze et al., 2010; Park et al., 2017), reduced discomfort (Galinsky et al.,
2007; Henning et al., 1997; Lacaze et al., 2010), and reduced sedentary time (Taylor et al.,
2016). However, the positive effects of exercise breaks on physical well-being are maintained
during a limited time range and may disappear within 24 weeks after the intervention (Barros et
al., 2018), pointing to the need to regularly engage in exercise breaks to continue seeing benefits.
In addition to physical well-being, exercising during a work break can also improve
psychological well-being of knowledge workers in terms of reduced fatigue (Abdelrahman et al.,
2017; de Bloom et al., 2017; Lacaze et al., 2010), improved mental health (Brown et al., 2014),
reduced stress levels (Michishita et al., 2017a, 2017b), increased vigor (Michishita et al., 2017b),
improved emotional state (Ren et al., 2019), and increased relaxation (Thørgersen-Ntoumani et
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 25
al., 2015). Given the role of physical exercise in recovery (van Hooff et al., 2019), it is not
surprising that exercising during work breaks relates to increased physical and psychological
However, in terms of performance, while knowledge workers perceive exercise breaks as
beneficial to their task performance (Abdelrahman et al., 2017; Park et al., 2017), studies that use
objective performance measures show mixed findings. Only one study reported a significant
effect of exercise breaks on an objective measure of task performance (Henning et al., 1997);
most studies showed mixed results, with some task performance measures improving (e.g.,
Hallbeck et al., 2017; see Study 2 in Henning et al., 1997) and others remaining unchanged after
the intervention (e.g., Blake et al., 2019; Carr et al., 2016). Notably, none of the studies reported
a decreased level of performance. Taken together, these results suggest that while engaging in
physical exercise during work breaks may not necessarily improve objective performance, at the
very least, it does not hurt performance and may even increase perceived performance among
Social breaks. When it comes to social breaks, several factors play a role in whether the
company of others is beneficial for knowledge workers’ well-being. First, the type of companion
and timing of outcomes matter (von Dreden & Binnewies, 2017). Specifically, lunch with a
supervisor increases vigor in the short-term (right after lunch), but negatively relates to vigor at
the end of the day. Conversely, companionship with colleagues has the opposite effect on end-of-
day vigor: it positively relates to employees’ vigor at the end of the workday, while still having a
negative effect on psychological detachment during a break. Second, when employees do not
have break autonomy, engaging in social breaks can increase their fatigue (Trougakos et al.,
2014). In other words, having “forced” social breaks may harm workers’ psychological well-
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 26
being. Further, the content of conversation matters. Having work-related conversations during
breaks depletes knowledge workers’ resources (as indicated by lower psychological detachment),
while having a private conversation fosters psychological detachment (von Dreden & Binnewies,
2017). This finding also explains why lunch with a supervisor is associated with reduced
psychological detachment during a work break, as employees are more likely to engage in work-
related conversations with their supervisors as compared to their peers.
Only two intervention studies incorporated social content into break interventions
(Krajewski et al., 2010; Machová et al., 2019). They suggest that social breaks that include
interactions with colleagues are not beneficial for psychological well-being beyond an existing
relaxation work break (Krajewski et al., 2010). However, it is worth noting that Krajewski et al.
compared social breaks with relaxation breaks, and not a no break (i.e., control) condition.
Moreover, as Machová et al.’s study (2019) suggests, social interactions are not restricted to
spending time with supervisors or colleagues. Knowledge workers who interacted with a therapy
dog during a break had lower levels of cortisol hormone (i.e., an objective indicator of stress). In
sum, the results show that social interactions during a work break can be beneficial, but it is
important that employees choose their company wisely and refrain from work-related
conversations (interactions with a dog may meet both of these criteria). From an organizational
perspective, employers should provide knowledge workers with break autonomy to mitigate
potential negative effects of social breaks on fatigue.
Nap breaks. Working night shifts is generally associated with sleep deprivation and, as a
result, poorer well-being and decreased performance (see Ruggiero & Redeker, 2014). To
address the adverse effects of night shifts, several studies have investigated the role of nap breaks
in improving well-being and performance. Findings from these studies suggest that taking a nap
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 27
can improve task performance (e.g., Chang et al., 2015; Matsumoto & Harada, 1994; Rosekind et
al., 1994) and physical well-being (Rosekind et al., 1994), while prohibiting workers from taking
a nap break has a negative effect on well-being (Matsumoto & Harada, 1994). Importantly, the
nap does not have to be long in duration—even a 15-minute nap can help reduce psychological
tension and prevent high levels of arousal (Oriyama et al., 2014). Additionally, there is a
temporal component to the relationship between nap breaks and well-being: taking a nap relates
to higher sleepiness among knowledge workers in the hours following the nap, but reduced
sleepiness by the end of a night shift (Barthe et al., 2016). This finding implies that a nap break
might have a negative short-term effect but is beneficial in the longer-run.
Respite activities. Some scholars consider a certain set of activities—engaging in leisure,
nonwork activities, and socializing with others—as respite activities (e.g., Chong et al., 2020;
Trougakos & Hideg, 2009). Respite activities are intended to be low-effort, enjoyable, and
relaxing. Engaging in these activities relates to higher levels of job well-being (increased
motivation) and psychological well-being (decreased exhaustion) via decreased negative affect
and increased positive affect (Chong et al., 2020). At the same time, individual factors serve as a
boundary condition for the effect of respite activities. Specifically, knowledge workers who have
higher levels of trait mindfulness benefit more from respite activities compared to those with
lower trait mindfulness. Autonomy in terms of timing is also important for the effectiveness of
respite activities as being able to choose the time of a work break boosts post-break
resources (Hunter & Wu, 2016). Further, respite activities are intertwined with recovery
experiences as they foster higher levels of psychological detachment (Chong et al., 2020; Sianoja
et al., 2018). Overall, respite activities can foster well-being via increased post-break resources
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 28
in the form of affect—a finding that is consistent with affective events theory (Weiss &
Working while on a break. Some knowledge workers engage in work activities even
when they are scheduled to take a break. To date, research has only investigated the effects of
these work-related breaks on knowledge workers’ physical and psychological well-being, and
not on performance. While some of these studies find no significant relationship between work-
related strategies and well-being (Berman & West, 2007; Zacher et al., 2014), others report a
positive relationship between the two (i.e., improved self-reported health and reduced emotional
exhaustion, Schulz et al., 2017). These mixed findings suggest a presence of moderators. One
such moderator is break autonomy, with one study showing that work-related activities during a
scheduled break increase fatigue among those knowledge workers who have low levels of break
autonomy (Trougakos et al., 2014).
Taken together, knowledge workers engage in various activities during their work breaks.
Some of these activities (e.g., exercising) are generally beneficial for well-being, suggesting a
resource-replenishing effect, while other activities (e.g., social media or social breaks) have
mixed effects on well-being, suggesting that they can both replenish and deplete knowledge
workers’ resources, dependent on other factors. Our review identified several contingencies of
the effectiveness of break activities, including timing of the break, break autonomy,
companionship, and trait mindfulness.
Experiences during work breaks. Although Sonnentag and Fritz (2007) originally
conceptualized recovery experiences as recovery during nonwork time, their ideas and scale have
been influential and widely applied to study recovery experiences during work breaks as well.
Recovery experiences capture psychological states, including detachment (not thinking about
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 29
work), relaxation (experience of low activation), mastery (experience of growth and learning),
and control (autonomy in deciding what to do). Newman et al. (2014) supplemented this
taxonomy by including meaning (psychological experience of gaining something valuable) and
affiliation (feeling of interpersonal connection). Experiences during work breaks relate to the
well-being of knowledge workers. Relaxing, relating to others, and having control over a lunch
break are related to better recovery, which in turn is associated with decreased exhaustion and
improved work engagement (e.g., Bosch et al., 2018; Rhee & Kim, 2016). Intervention studies
have predominantly focused on relaxation as a recovery experience, demonstrating that
relaxation during work breaks is generally effective in improving multiple indicators of
psychological well-being (reduced emotional exhaustion; Cordoza et al., 2018; reduced fatigue;
de Bloom et al., 2017; Sianoja et al., 2018; reduced emotional strain; Krajewski et al., 2010;
Sianoja et al., 2018; lowered stress; Largo-Wight et al., 2017).
Interestingly, when controlling for relaxation during work breaks, the effect of work
break frequency on well-being becomes nonsignificant (Coffeng et al., 2015), suggesting that
recovery experiences during work breaks are critical in explaining the positive effects of work
breaks. Further, recovery experiences during a work break weaken the effect of work enjoyment
on increased vigor and decreased emotional exhaustion (Demerouti et al., 2012). In other words,
enjoying the work itself is important for well-being when knowledge workers cannot recover
during their breaks; however, enjoyment does not relate to well-being when recovery
experiences are high. In sum, these findings demonstrate the importance of recovery experiences
during a work break in fostering well-being.
While results largely support the positive associations between work break experiences
and outcomes, one study suggested that on-job recovery experiences do not explain additional
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 30
variance over and above off-job recovery on employee task performance and well-being
outcomes (concentration, emotional exhaustion, depressive feelings, sleep problems, and
physical health problems; de Jonge, 2020). Put differently, experiencing recovery either after or
during work might be sufficient for fostering well-being.
Consistent with the tenets of attention restoration theory (Kaplna, 1995), research
suggests that the location where employees take their break matters for their recovery. The use of
greenspace positively relates to feelings of restoration (Colley et al., 2017), and studies
comparing different modes of relaxation breaks show that those taken outdoors generally
demonstrate positive effects, while indoor breaks do not (e.g., Cordoza et al., 2018; Largo-Wight
et al., 2017). However, there are demographic differences in taking work breaks outdoors, with
women and older workers being less likely than men and younger workers to use outdoor
greenspace (Colley et al., 2017). There is also a temporal aspect of recovery experiences as
different recovery experiences might have different short- and long-term effects on well-being
and performance. For example, Brennan and DeBate (2006) found that reductions in stress
continued for 24 hours; however, after 24 hours, participants experienced heightened stress
levels. Relaxation work breaks appear to be most effective in reducing post-lunch and afternoon
emotional strain compared to those taken during other times (Krajewski et al., 2010). These
findings again point to the importance of considering the timing of work breaks.
Although some studies use an amalgamated approach to recovery experiences, certain
types of recovery experiences are more important for knowledge workers’ well-being than others
(Virtanen et al., 2021). For instance, psychological detachment and meaning during a work break
increase positive affect and decrease negative affect in the afternoon, which in turn relates to
better psychological well-being in the evening. In contrast, relaxation, autonomy, and mastery do
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 31
not relate to employee affective states. Unfortunately, while psychological detachment is a key
factor for fostering well-being, it is also one of the least prevalent experiences during a work
break (Virtanen et al., 2021).
In summary, research suggests that recovery experiences during work breaks are
generally beneficial for knowledge workers, that psychological detachment and relaxation have
higher potency than other recovery experiences, and that the context and timing of breaks are
critical factors for facilitating recovery. It also illustrates that recovery experiences are
intertwined with work break activities (e.g., Bosch et al., 2018; Chong et al., 2020; von Dreden
& Binnewies, 2017).
Micro-break strategies. Micro-breaks incorporate all elements of work breaks—they are
short in duration, can be taken frequently, and encompass both recovery activities and
experiences (e.g., Bosch & Sonnentag, 2019). Notably, while scholars usually consider micro-
breaks as self-initiated breaks, intervention studies show that employers can provide
opportunities for taking micro-breaks. Knowledge workers report engaging in various activities
and/or having various experiences during their micro-breaks. Around half of employees report
having a snack, going to the washroom, connecting with a family member or a friend, or
drinking coffee/water during micro-breaks (e.g., de Bloom et al., 2015; Kühnel et al., 2017).
Work-related activities (e.g., making to-do lists) are also common micro-break strategies among
knowledge workers (de Bloom et al., 2015). Less common micro-break strategies include
smoking, surfing the Internet, engaging in physical exercise, napping, going outside, or engaging
Engaging in micro-breaks serves as an important strategy for restoring energy levels
(Kim et al., 2022) and improving psychological and physical well-being (McLean et al., 2001).
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 32
On days when employees are more fatigued in the morning, they engage in more micro-breaks,
which in turn increases job and psychological well-being. In addition to increased well-being,
micro-breaks have an indirect effect on objective measures of task performance via increased
positive affect (Kim et al., 2018). However, this relationship is contingent on levels of work
engagement: knowledge workers with low levels of work engagement might benefit more from
taking micro-breaks (Kim et al., 2018).
Similarly, studies demonstrate that there are several contingencies of micro-break
effectiveness. First, there is a temporal aspect; for example, micro-break strategies can reduce
fatigue and increase vitality in the short term (e.g., within the next hour; Zacher et al., 2014), but
do not have a direct association with overall health or exhaustion (Schulz et al., 2017). The
timing of micro-breaks also matters as afternoon (but not morning) micro-breaks foster job well-
being among knowledge workers (i.e., work engagement; Kühnel et al., 2017). Second, when
employees have autonomy over their break schedule, they engage in more frequent micro-breaks,
which relates to more positive well-being outcomes (e.g., increased job engagement, reduced
fatigue; Kim et al., 2022).
Yet, not all micro-break strategies are equally beneficial, and the type of micro-break
strategy may serve as a third boundary condition for their effectiveness. For instance, relaxation,
social, cognitive, and exercise micro-breaks positively relate to well-being (e.g., de Bloom et al.,
2015; Kim et al., 2017; Kim et al., 2018; Schulz et al., 2017) as well as task and contextual
performance (de Bloom et al., 2015). However, nutrition-intake breaks are not associated with
well-being (e.g., Kim et al., 2018). Further, while intake of caffeinated beverages weakens the
relationship between work demands and negative affect, cognitive micro-break strategies have
the opposite effect (Kim et al., 2017). In addition, the effectiveness of micro-breaks on well-
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 33
being might differ depending on knowledge workers’ level of compulsiveness such that
employees with high (vs. low) levels of compulsiveness might benefit more from taking more
frequent micro-breaks (Schulz et al., 2017).
Taken together, findings on micro-breaks suggest that they are generally effective in
fostering well-being and performance outcomes of knowledge workers. However, there are
certain contingencies—namely, type of micro-break, timing, autonomy, and employee
compulsiveness—that might alter the effectiveness of micro-breaks.
Future Research Agenda
The many different conceptualizations of work breaks impose challenges for researchers
and practitioners alike. Recognizing the scattered literature on the topic of work breaks, we
conducted a systematic review of the extant empirical studies to illuminate what is known about
the relationship between work breaks and two key outcomes (well-being and performance)
among knowledge workers. Building on existing trends in the work break research, we identify
several areas for future study.
Recognizing the Complex Nature of Work Breaks
Our review identifies a work break as a complex phenomenon with multiple features,
such as break initiator, duration, frequency, and associated activities and experiences. We see an
opportunity to further examine how these features of work breaks interact in relation to well-
being and performance. While both the effort-recovery model (Meijman & Mulder, 1998) and
ego depletion theory (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) suggest that employees need to stop
working to restore their resources, there is an opportunity to test the temporal aspects of these
theories. For example, how do duration and frequency of work breaks interact to ensure
sufficient recovery? Does a more effective break strategy represent taking more frequent but
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 34
shorter breaks or is it sufficient to take one large break for proper recovery? Further, as our
review showed, the timing of breaks may alter their effectiveness. Thus, researchers could
investigate whether certain combinations of duration and frequency interact with when the
employee takes a break. Examining these questions would not only advance theory with respect
to temporal aspects (e.g., Roe, 2014), but would also provide organizations and employees with
concrete strategies for scheduling work breaks.
Moreover, several theories posit the importance of activities and experiences and of the
initiator of work breaks (i.e., conservation of resources theory; Hobfoll, 1989; job demands-
resources model; Demerouti et al., 2001; Kaplan, 1995), highlighting the need to account for
these features in addition to frequency and duration. For example, walking in a park connotes an
activity with longer duration and lower frequency than, say, having a short conversation with a
colleague. The initiator may also play an important role in the type of work break activities and
experiences. Indeed, organizations cannot demand employees to “engage” in the psychological
detachment that characterizes a positive break experience; however, they can provide
opportunities and context to facilitate recovery experiences. Further, certain types of activities,
such as a social interaction with a colleague, are better left unregulated by the organization as
forced social interactions are unlikely to foster recovery. In sum, examining different
configurations of work breaks would help identify more or less effective work breaks for well-
being and performance within contextual and temporal parameters.
One possible way of testing the relative impact of each break element would be to
conduct experimental studies. In this way, researchers can test the differential effects of break
elements on well-being and performance outcomes by manipulating one aspect of work breaks at
a time while controlling for others. However, we recognize that random assignment associated
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 35
with experimental designs is not always realistic in a field setting. As such, a well-implemented
quasi-experimental design could answer similar questions. Another promising type of
experimental design in the context of work breaks is an adapted intervention design (see Randall
et al., 2005). This design entails gradual adaptation of the experimental intervention based on
continuous evaluation of the intervention process (e.g., using frequent measurements,
participants’ feedback, etc.), allowing researchers to use measured exposure patterns to evaluate
Researchers could also examine the impact of breaks on well-being and performance
outcomes using a break-oriented approach. Specifically, they could construct different break
profiles based on breaks’ relative standing in terms of their initiator, frequency, duration,
activities, and experiences, and then contrast the effects of those profiles on employees’ well-
being and performance. Analytical techniques such as latent profile analysis (Spurk et al., 2020)
or k-means cluster analysis (Steinley, 2006) could be used to calculate work-break profiles. This
type of analysis would also contribute to a better understanding of how different features of work
Accounting for the Changing Context of Work
Recent worldwide developments, such as COVID-19 (Rudolph et al., 2021) and
increased use of remote technology, have initiated significant changes in how people work.
These changes are particularly relevant for knowledge workers (e.g., Garrote Sanchez et al.,
2021) and are critical for the field of occupational health psychology (see Clarke, 2022).
Drawing on existing theoretical frameworks, researchers can examine how attitudes toward work
breaks and ability to take breaks relate to work break experiences and/or activities under
different work conditions. For example, from the job demands and resources perspective, the
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 36
demands on employees and resources available to employees might differ. As many people gain
increasing flexibility in choosing where they work, the types of break activities and/or
experiences that are available to them will also differ. For instance, while a nutrition break could
be more accessible when working at a coffee shop or from home, a social break is more
accessible when working from the office.
Another development that deserves special attention from work break researchers is the
increased prevalence in working from home (e.g., Zhang et al., 2021). By drawing from the
theories of work-life interface (e.g., crossover theories; Westman, 2001) or work-life integration
(Williams et al., 2016), researchers can pose interesting new questions. For example, how does
the interaction of family-related demands and work breaks influence well-being and
performance? Is attending to family needs an effective use of the detachment opportunity to
replenish diminished resources? Working from home blurs the lines between work and nonwork
domains. From a crossover perspective (Westman, 2001), these blurred lines imply that people
working from home who accumulate strain in the work domain can experience recovery in the
home domain (or vice versa). Moreover, work breaks can be interrupted by family demands. In
this case, nonwork-related factors, such as the ability to take a break, companionship, or stressors
at home, can also serve as boundary conditions in the relationship between work breaks and post-
In line with working from home, alternative employment types (e.g., gig work,
entrepreneurship, and multiple job holding) have become far more common. These forms of
employment warrant increased job control (e.g., flexibility in determining the work schedule)
and may influence attitudes toward work breaks. For example, a person who engages in
freelancing might view a work break as a threat to their income. When the increased job control
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 37
due to alternative employment types is coupled with negative attitudes toward work breaks, it is
likely to negatively influence the use of work breaks as well as post-break resources. We invite
future researchers to integrate alternative employment types as a boundary condition in the
existing theories of work breaks.
Examining Long- and Short-Term Well-Being and Performance Outcomes
Like other areas that focus on intrapersonal issues (e.g., loneliness; Gabriel et al., 2021;
healthy eating; Cho & Kim, 2022), research on work breaks is highly informative in identifying
short-term well-being and performance outcomes, but not necessarily longer-term ones. We
therefore propose that future research would benefit from expanding the temporal timeframe by
examining the long-term outcomes of work breaks. For example, does taking regular breaks for
an extended period of time result in habit formation that subsequently improves health? Do work
breaks lose or enhance efficacy when taken regularly for years? Do the findings regarding well-
being and performance outcomes show differences in the long term (vs. short term)? Addressing
these questions would enhance our understanding of the effects of work breaks from the
temporal aspect of theory testing and would also answer calls to incorporate longitudinal
methodologies in occupational health psychology research (e.g., Liu et al., 2016).
Conceptualizing Work Break Climate
As work breaks appear to have mixed effects on well-being and performance, it is critical
to understand what distinguishes their bright and dark sides. We identify work break climate—
employees’ shared perceptions about taking work breaks—as a potential contextual factor that
can help explain this distinction at the organizational level. Work break climate can serve as a
boundary condition for multiple relationships. First, a general stigma around taking a break can
shape attitudes toward work breaks (e.g., taking a break is associated with feelings of guilt).
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 38
Second, work break climate can have implications for the ability to take a break. Employees
operating in a negative work break climate may refuse to take a break even when they have an
opportunity to do so. Third, work break climate can serve as a boundary condition for the
relationship between work breaks and post-break resources. For example, employees working in
a negative work break climate may feel guilty for taking a break and subsequently experience
reduced well-being as a result of engaging in a stigmatized activity. Similarly, they may
experience negative performance outcomes, especially if the performance ratings depend on the
subjective evaluations of others. Investing efforts in understanding work break climate could
help clarify when work breaks are beneficial for well-being and performance, as well as inform
organizations with regard to the steps they need to take to foster climates that predispose
employees to take work breaks.
Understanding the Effects of Work Breaks at Multiple Levels
Extant research primarily focuses on the effects of work breaks for employees. While this
information has significant implications for individual employees with regards to their well-
being and performance, organizations are often most interested in the organizational-level
outcomes. They want to know, for instance, if work breaks decrease sickness absence, improve
employee retention, and increase organizational performance. Providing rigorous empirical
evidence for why work breaks are important to organizations can be fruitful in at least two ways.
First, showing organizational-level improvements points to valuable practical implications of
work breaks for organizations; this, in turn, can help scholars and practitioners convince
organizations to support work breaks. Second, organizational-level results can inform work
break interventions so that they produce the maximum benefit for both organizations and
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 39
Another important consideration of investigating multiple levels of analysis is that effect
sizes found at one level may not translate to another (e.g., Chen et al., 2005). As an example,
taking short social media breaks can enhance job well-being (e.g., work engagement). However,
taking a short social media break as a team could potentially reduce the team’s job well-being. In
this way, future research would benefit from examining team- and organizational-level outcomes
of work breaks to understand their implications for different stakeholders.
Methodological Advancements in Studying Breaks
Due to work breaks’ intrapersonal nature, experience sampling is a common method used
to study them. While experience sampling can be used to observe within-person change,
researchers often encounter methodological challenges such as participant fatigue, limitations
that come with shortened measurements, and attrition (e.g., Gabriel et al., 2019). These problems
can be addressed by incorporating wearable devices and wellness trackers (e.g., see ten
Brummelhuis et al., 2021) into work breaks studies. Such devices can record if, when, and for
how long employees engage in break activities during their workday. They also can detect
changes in work break activities and capture the timing of a specific activity. Additionally,
wearable devices can track changes in physiological outcomes like respiration rate, sweating, or
heartbeat because of activity change (e.g., Jeong et al., 2018). Further, using wearable
technology can allow researchers to follow participants throughout the entire day. In short,
expanding data collection sources by incorporating these kinds of technological advancements
could be highly beneficial to future research on work breaks.
Finally, examining work breaks as a between-level phenomenon can amplify our
knowledge about the effectiveness of work breaks. For example, in organizations where
employees take their lunch breaks as a group, they can share the same duration and activities. In
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 40
such situations, understanding how these higher-level work breaks relate to group as well as
individual well-being and performance could generate interesting insights. Moreover, examining
work breaks at the occupational level could inform policy and practice by illuminating the
optimal work break characteristics for workers in a particular industry. In some other situations
(e.g., where one or a few employees initiate work breaks and others follow), the social network
theory and network analysis approach could also offer new opportunities (see Knoke & Yang,
2019). For instance, researchers can study the relationships between the initiator and employees
who are on a break (i.e., followers), examining how these relationships determine break
outcomes. Similarly, using a network approach can allow future research to investigate how
network structures relate to performance and well-being in the context of work breaks.
Our proposed integrative framework and suggestions should be interpreted in light of
several limitations. Qualitative reviews require an in-depth understanding of articles; as such, we
excluded studies that were published in languages other than English. While this approach is
consistent with both quantitative and qualitative review studies (e.g., Park & Martinez, 2022;
Roczniewska et al., 2021), we acknowledge that it might lead to omitted samples. Second, as
evident from our review, there is a high level of heterogeneity among studies in terms of their
different operationalizations of work breaks. We believe that understanding the existence of such
heterogeneity is an important contribution in itself; however, this precludes researchers from
synthesizing quantitively available empirical evidence (e.g., Steel et al., 2021). As a certain
degree of subjectivity is inherent in qualitative reviews (Siddaway et al., 2019), results from the
review should be interpreted as directional. Third, to reduce heterogeneity among studies, we
focused on knowledge workers. Thus, our results may not be generalizable to other kinds of
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 41
professions. For example, findings from this review show that engaging in exercise during a
work break is generally effective for increasing well-being among knowledge workers. However,
for professions characterized by high levels of physical demand (e.g., construction workers),
physical exercise may not increase well-being to the same extent; indeed, it may even diminish
well-being. Similarly, it is important to acknowledge that the studies covered in this review took
place in the physical boundaries of organizations. Consequently, the results might not be
generalizable to alternative types of employment.
This article presents a systematic review of work breaks in relation to well-being and
performance among knowledge workers, illuminating the current state of the work break
research. By reviewing various operationalizations of work breaks, we advance a model for
conceptualizing the same. Further, drawing on the extant research, we offer an integrative
framework of the effects of work breaks on well-being and performance. Our hope is that the
proposed model and framework will inform future investigations of work breaks. In addition,
organizations can use this review to inform their policies regarding breaks, while practitioners
interested in work breaks can use it as a starting point to understand how work breaks relate to
well-being and performance outcomes.
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 42
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A Summary of Included Studies
Observational study design
2000 – 2005
Experience sampling method
2006 – 2010
2011 – 2015
Intervention study design
Does not discuss
Conservation of resources
Work break characteristics
Attitudes toward work breaks
Attention restoration theory
Ability to take a work break
Affective events theory
Work break duration
Frequency of work breaks
Other theories (mentioned < 1)
Social media work breaks
Exercise work breaks
Social work breaks
Nap work breaks
Respite activities during work breaks
Work-related activities during a work break
Experiences during work breaks
Note. aMixed design refers to a combination of within- and between-subject designs. Based on
information from 83 articles that include 87 unique samples. Some articles draw on multiple
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 55
The Review Process Based on PRISMA Flow Diagram
WORK BREAKS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW 56
An Integrative Framework of Work Breaks