Fatigue is an early warning sign in the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) both on and off the job. From offices to orchards, employees experience local muscle fatigue in the form of cramps or exhaustion. Rest usually helps relieve this discomfort. In his book, Cumulative Trauma Disorders, Vern Putz-Anderson states that fatigue depends on how hard as well as how long a person works.
Most employees working an 8-hour shift take two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute meal period. This standard practice breaks up the work shift and gives employees a chance to rest and become refreshed. Providing additional, shorter rest breaks each hour has shown to reduce the risk of discomfort, fatigue, and injury.
Reduce risk of injury and musculoskeletal symptoms
A study of data-entry operators compared a standard rest break schedule to one supplemented with 5-minute rest breaks during each hour that did not otherwise contain a break. The supplementary rest break schedule showed a reduction in eyestrain and discomfort to the forearm, wrist, and hand, without a reduction in data-entry performance (Galinsky et al, 2000). The authors completed a follow-up field study that was intended to also measure the benefits of stretching during the rest breaks. The operators that took extra rest breaks were again shown to have reduced discomfort and eyestrain, without a reduction in productivity. The level of compliance with suggested stretches was too low to measure an additional benefit (Galinsky et al, 2007).
A more recent study introduced this supplementary rest break schedule to two agricultural work tasks—harvesting strawberries and grafting fruit trees. The authors reported that for both trials, workers given additional rest breaks reported significantly less severe symptoms. The nursery that participated in the study continued the practice of additional rest breaks after its conclusion, though they reduced the length to 3-minute periods (Faucett et al, 2007).
Another study—conducted in a meat processing plant—gave workers either twelve 3-minute breaks or four 9-minute breaks, in addition to a meal period, spread evenly over the work shift. The 9-minute rest break schedule showed reductions in discomfort, without a decrease in production. In addition, workers preferred the 9-minute break schedule (Dababneh et al, 2001).
Considerations for additional rest breaks
- What should workers do during the rest break?
Stretch the parts of the body that are used during work periods. However, even without stretching, additional rest breaks have been shown to be beneficial.
- How long should additional rest breaks be?
Workers and employers should work together to find a balance. Start with supplemental 5-minute rest breaks. Try creating an alternative break schedule, with four moderate length breaks, as in the meat processing plant study.
- Dababneh, A., Swanson, N., Shell, R. 2001. Impact of added rest breaks on the productivity and wellbeing of workers.
Ergonomics. 2001 February; 44(2):164-174.
- Faucett, J., Meyers, J., et al 2007. Rest break interventions in stoop labor tasks.
Applied Ergonomics. 2007 March; 38(2):219-226.
- Galinsky, T., Swanson, N., et al 2001. A field study of supplementary rest breaks for data-entry operators.
Ergonomics. 2000 May; 43(5):622-38.
- Galinsky, T., Swanson, N., et al, 2007. Supplementary breaks and stretching exercises for data entry operators: a follow-up field study. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2007 July; 50(7):519-27.