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Rest Breaks and Recovery

Ensuring adequate recovery at and after work

Recovery serves to restore depleted resources of physical and mental energy. It is essential to reduce the negative effects of heavy workloads.

What are recovery and rest breaks?

Recovery serves to restore depleted resources of physical and mental energy. It can take place at work (e.g. during rest breaks) and after work (e.g. off-job time in the evenings or on days off). Rest breaks are work interruptions of various lengths during which employees are able to recover. A mandatory rest break is required after six hours of working time at the latest (Section 4 Working Time Act [Arbeitszeitgesetz, ArbZG]). Other types of rest break include short breaks or screen breaks. In order to allow longer recovery phases, an uninterrupted rest period of at least 11 hours is also prescribed after work ends (Section 5 ArbZG).

Why is this important?

Recovery is essential to reduce the negative consequences of heavy workloads. This is becoming ever more important in our fast-moving, digitalised world of work with its growing mental demands. However, 28% of employees report frequently skipping mandatory rest breaks (Working Time Report [Arbeitszeitreport], 2018), 18% report shortened rest periods, 12% report frequently being contacted from work during private time, 22% report not being able to switch off from work, and almost half report frequent fatigue, tiredness, and exhaustion (Stress Report [Stressreport], 2020).

What does the research say?

  • In the short term, rest breaks influence the development of strain outcomes. They reduce the negative impacts of work, such as fatigue or stress, and promote its benefits, such as learning. In the longer term, rest breaks improve health, well-being, and work performance. They also lessen absenteeism, staff turnover, and the number of accidents reported in organisations.
  • The extent to which someone recovers successfully depends on his or her working conditions, among other factors. Unfavourable working conditions, such as high time pressure, emotional demands or social conflicts, can lead to recovery problems. For example, individuals may not take enough time to recover properly and so hamper necessary recovery processes, such as switching off from work. This can have negative consequences, including fatigue and exhaustion. If recovery is successful, however, it can mitigate the negative consequences of heavy workloads.
  • Not being able to detach from work during off-job time is an early sign of unfavourable working conditions and high levels of stress among employees. It is common for this to be caused by social conflicts, heavy emotional demands, excessive workloads, long working hours, and working during rest periods. In contrast, it has a positive effect if employees receive social support.

What action needs to be taken?

It must be ensured that employees have sufficient rest breaks and that they actually take them. In addition, both break times and rest periods should be clearly demarcated from work, for example by setting and communicating appropriate rules. Since psychological detachment plays such a central role in recovery, interruptions to these recovery phases should be avoided so that people are able to distance themselves mentally from work.

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