The Microstructure of Work: How Unexpected Breaks Let You Rest, But Not Lose Focus

53 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2016

See all articles by Pradeep Pendem

Pradeep Pendem

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill - Operations Area

Paul Green

University of Texas at Austin - Red McCombs School of Business; Harvard Business School

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School

Date Written: December 20, 2016

Abstract

How best to structure the work day is an important operational question for organizations. A key structural consideration is the effective use of breaks from work. Breaks serve the critical purpose of allowing employees to recharge, but in the short term, translate to a loss of time that usually leads to reduced productivity. We evaluate the effects of two types of breaks (expected versus unexpected), and two distinct forms of unexpected breaks, and find that unexpected breaks can, under certain conditions, yield immediate post-break performance increases. We test our hypotheses using productivity data from 212 fruit harvesters collected over one harvesting season yielding nearly 250,000 truckloads of fruit harvested over the course of 9,832 shifts. We provide a conceptual laboratory replication of these findings, showing that unexpected breaks lead to increased performance when they allow people to maintain attention on the focal task. Our results suggest that the characteristics of a break can lead the break to be experienced as an interruption, with all consequent negative outcomes, or as a rejuvenating and experience, with positive post-break consequences.

Keywords: Breaks, Productivity, Attention, Workload, Harvesting

Suggested Citation

Pendem, Pradeep and Green, Paul and Staats, Bradley R. and Gino, Francesca, The Microstructure of Work: How Unexpected Breaks Let You Rest, But Not Lose Focus (December 20, 2016). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 17-058. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2888477 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2888477

Pradeep Pendem

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill - Operations Area ( email )

300 Kenan Center Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Paul Green

University of Texas at Austin - Red McCombs School of Business ( email )

Austin, TX 78712
United States

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School ( email )

McColl Building, CB#3490
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Francesca Gino (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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