Cindy Wu and Emily Hunter
Season 6 - Episode 628
What constitutes a good workday break, and how can breaks impact both productivity and health? Cindy Wu and Emily Hunter from Baylor’s Department of Management studied these topics, and their research broke new ground and shattered a few long-held myths. In this Baylor Connections, Wu and Hunter help listeners consider their own workday breaks and how to effectively utilize them for benefits on and off the job.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, researchers, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And today we are talking work breaks and more with Dr. Emily Hunter and Dr. Cindy Wu. Dr. Hunter and Dr. Wu are Hankamer School of Business faculty and research collaborators whose highly published research has also been covered in popular outlets like the Washington Post, Yahoo, Entrepreneur Magazine, Esquire and more. Hunter serves as professor and department chair of management with research focused in areas like organizational behavior, servant leadership, work-family conflict, and more. Wu serves as professor of management and associate dean for diversity and inclusion. Conducting research in areas like employee wellbeing, energy and stress, energy recovery and holistic flourishing. Their past research, collaboration and effective workday breaks broke new ground and dispelled myths surrounding the topic. And they're with us today on the program. Dr. Hunter, Dr. Wu, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today and come in here together to be on the program.
Emily Hunter:It's our pleasure.
Cindy Wu:Thank you for having us.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here, and I think it's a topic that most people are going to be able to find something to apply to their own life. Because the workplace, whether virtual or in person, that's where we spend the majority of our daytime hours. So I'm curious, Dr. Hunter, I'll start with you. What do you most enjoy, or what's most meaningful to you about studying work and its impact?
Emily Hunter:Yes. So, I love it when it's meaningful and impactful, and we have something practical to give to people. That's really my goal. And I enjoy helping people really thrive at work, not just survive the workday. I believe that work can be a source of joy, and a source of energy, and gaining new skills. And my research is always aiming to help really nurture that side of work that is a positive nourishing side.
Cindy Wu:The reason why I love this area of research is because everybody spends so many hours at work every day. And if they don't enjoy what they do, if they don't have good experiences at work, that pretty much means they have a not very enjoyable life experience. Because we spend so many hours a day at work. So in a similar way, I love this area of research, because it's very applicable, it's relevant to everybody. And it's very practical. And people can look at this issue from different perspectives, what we can do as individual employees, what we can do as leaders, managers, helping our employees thrive. And what the organizations can do in the policy, in the organizational design, and in the benefit offerings, for example, to help employees thrive and flourish. So I love this research.
Derek Smith:Work is a very broad topic. I gave a brief description at the top of the show. If someone from another department or even another industry said, "Oh, well, where do you focus?" How would you answer that?
Cindy Wu:I would say I focus on just, you mentioned here, holistic employee flourishing. And what I mean by that is, we are not just specifically narrowly focused on doing well on the job in terms of work performance. But we look at people as the overall person. What do we do to support the person's holistic development so that they do well at drop in terms of good performance, and also in terms of their behavior? Helping other coworkers, not just focusing on themselves, and feeling like they're energized, not feeling depleted at the end of the day. And also when they go back home, they can bring that positive energy back home as well. So we are looking at just those different ways that we can help employees just developing better wellbeing.
Emily Hunter:And I'll just add to what Cindy's saying. Really our Christian faith perspective as Baylor professors encourages us to look at that whole person perspective. So not just look at the performance outcomes or the bottom line perspective in a business environment, but to really look at the whole person. And so, my research tends to focus specifically on things like taking breaks from work, and how employees balance their work and family lives, ultimately to help employees relieve their stress, find more joy in their work lives and their whole lives. And then also practically really looking at leadership and how leaders are impacting the employee experience. So forming leaders who are more supportive, supportive of employee wellbeing, and supportive of helping employees find balance between work and home life.
Derek Smith:Definitely some similar themes for sure. How did you both get started researching together? How did the partnership develop?
Emily Hunter:Yes. So I, as a young tenure track faculty at Baylor looked to mentors like Cindy and approached her one day. I remember the conversation well. And I said, "I want to work on something with you. Here are a few ideas that I have." And one of the ideas is about breaks. And so we took it from there, and it's been such a great partnership.
Cindy Wu:Yeah, yeah. I remember Emily approaching me. And she came with such great energy and technical capability. So when she proposed this idea, she said, "Not much was talked about in the literature, and I think we have a great opportunity here." And I was thinking about it and I thought, "Yeah, it really is a novel idea." And then she brought so much great ideas and knowledge. So we started the project.
Derek Smith:What questions did you immediately have as you started thinking about breaks from the perspective of, "Okay, we're going to research this"?
Cindy Wu:The question immediately came to me, how are we going to study it? How do we define breaks? And then how do we get participants, and where do we find the participants to do this study? So all these practical things, like how do we make it happen?
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. How do we make it happen, yeah.
Emily Hunter:And I had been recently learning about new research methods. It seems obvious and simple, but it's not something that we always do in the research to really look at the daily experiences, the hourly experiences, it's called experience sampling method. But rather than ask someone in a survey what they typically do, which is kind of our default method, instead, really track those daily experiences across the day. And so I learned how to do that. There's a lot of complex methods around doing that well. And so, I wanted to try out that method in this study, because breaks are a phenomenon that's happening minute by minute daily where employees, the refreshment replenishment they feel from breaks is happening in that moment. And it may not be something they can recall later very well. So we wanted to capture it in the moment.
Derek Smith:Right. So, if we're we're sitting there at home, or if we're working from home, or if we're on the job kind of monitoring what we're doing throughout the day so that we're not trying to go back and recall afterwards, I think it was 10:30 or what have you.
Emily Hunter:That's right. That's right. That's right.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Emily Hunter and Dr. Cindy Wu from Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. So you've set this up here. Let's talk about workplace breaks now and really, really dive into this study. First off, what are some of the myths, or if myths too strong a word, what are some of the things that you found that people either think about or don't think about regarding breaks?
Emily Hunter:So I think there's a few myths out there that we were trying to dispel with some empirical research. So there's a myth that breaks are a waste of employee time and resources. I think often managers and organizational leaders see breaks as a waste, as something to minimize. Whereas we see breaks as something that's going to help an employee flourish. Another one is that people often tell us when we say that we study breaks, they say, "Oh, I never take breaks." There's this myth that people get through the whole day without any breaks. So I think it's about defining what is a break. And we define it as really any time away from work, and we are all taking little small short breaks throughout the day, because it's just natural and it's necessary. So whereas someone might say, "I take no breaks," then it's helpful to clarify, "Well, probably you chat with a colleague, or you step away to get a coffee, or all of those little things you do throughout the day to get through the day."
Cindy Wu:Yeah. I think from the individual employee's perspective, we tend to think, "Oh, breaks, lunch, that's break. Right? That's a break." Or, "I have to leave my office space to be considered as taking a break." Or, "Oh, the best break is you take a walk," or, "The best break is you do something unrelated to work." So I think people have a lot of those assumptions about what a break, an ideal break should be like. So we examine those different characteristics of a break to see what characteristics will make those breaks effective.
Derek Smith:With all those different types of breaks, is it more complicated to study, or is it easier when really anything away from work is a break?
Emily Hunter:Well, we were able to investigate all of these different types of breaks that people I think tend to theorize make the best break. So we were able to look at all of those characteristics all in one study at one time, to determine what is really the best predictor of a refreshing, replenishing break? And so empirically were able to take all those little theories and little myths, and try to put them together into one, to test empirically what is the best way.
Derek Smith:Well, I guess that leads to an obvious question. Let's start right there. What are some of the ways you can project what is going to make a helpful break, again with that idea of helpful being what moment away to replenish, and then kind of recharge for what's ahead?
Cindy Wu:Yeah. So the idea here is that, it doesn't matter if it is taking a walk. It doesn't matter where that break is, inside of the office or outside of the office. And it doesn't even matter exactly the length of the break. What it matters, at least in our empirical finding, is that you do something that you prefer, choose something that you prefer to do. Yeah. Because the idea of the break is that you take a little stop from exerting effort to focus and to concentrate on the work that you do. So by removing yourself from that need to highly concentrating on your work, then you are taking a pause from that effort. So instead of having to continue to pay the effort to do something, now you choose something that you naturally prefer to do. So that's the key characteristic to make that break refreshing and replenishing.
Emily Hunter:Yes. And so, we looked at preference. And I think the driving force here is that you get to choose. If an employee is able to choose how they spend their break time, which may require a different style of leadership, or it may require more freedom in the way that employees are able to take breaks. It's that choice, that autonomy, that drives the replenishment that you're going to recover your resources and feel more replenished after the break, if you get to choose what you do and you do something you prefer.
Derek Smith:You indicated, I think, Dr. Wu, that it wasn't so much about the lengths, but were there pieces of the study about the length of the break that really stand out?
Cindy Wu:I think we had a postdoc analysis, meaning we did not hypothesize in the original research question. But then by the suggestion of the journal reviewer, we tested it. And it's not the length per se, but it is a interaction between the length and the frequency of the break that could potentially make some difference. So, yeah.
Emily Hunter:The way I like to describe it is, it's like we all know that it's good to stay hydrated, that it's good to drink water frequently throughout the day. So the same thing you can keep in mind with breaks. The best strategy for taking breaks for the day is short, frequent breaks. So it doesn't matter exactly the length. And we've had so many people, reporters and reviewers and everyone ask us, "What's the ideal break length?" We really didn't find an ideal length. That doesn't matter so much as taking frequent breaks. So the worst strategy we found is putting off break time until you're exhausted at 3:00 p.m., and you just have to break because you can't concentrate anymore. Pushing yourself all the way until 3:00 p.m., is not a good strategy, you're depleted by that point. Instead, we found that people took breaks early in the day, even short 5, 10 minute breaks at 10:00 a.m., and then again at lunchtime, and throughout the day helped them replenish their resources faster and get back to work more refreshed.
Cindy Wu:Right. So, I really like that hydration analogy. It's like before you even feel it, you are depleted. You start replenishing it so that you don't wait until you're depleting.
Derek Smith:That makes sense. So it's really, for as we think about this study and applying it, it really is about replenishment. And I think it's not so much the break from work. I think people are like, "Okay, good. I can take a little break here." But it's really about, "Okay, how am I going to feel afterwards?" Is that fair to say?
Emily Hunter:Yes. So, we looked at replenishment as kind of that short term outcome immediately following the break, people felt replenished. But then we looked at some longer term things. So we looked at some symptoms of health. So these breaks that were replenishing led to less headaches, eye strain and lower back pain immediately following these breaks. So those are good things we want to minimize with break time. So just getting up and stretching and walking around is going to help your body. And then we looked at longer turn outcomes. You want to talk about those?
Cindy Wu:Yeah. So, we talked about earlier the methodology that we used. We asked people to track every break. And then when we sum up those breaks together to see what is the aggregate outcome, we found that people who take breaks tends to have better satisfaction, and they show more helping behavior in the workplace. So they tends to do a little more than what their job prescribe them to do.
Derek Smith:So that's where if I'm a manager or a leader in my business, that's where I see it paying back into the business.
Cindy Wu:Yes, absolutely. And then we also find that when people pace themselves and take breaks, take effective breaks at the average level, they also tends to experience less emotional exhaustion. So they are less likely to feel like, "I just have nothing to give once I get home, so leave me alone." How many of us have that experience? But when people take effective breaks at the end of the day, at the end of the week, they are less likely to experience that.
Emily Hunter:And all of these benefits I think sum up to an argument for managers and organizational leaders, that workday breaks those short breaks throughout the day, and giving employees freedom and how they choose their breaks is going to ultimately benefit the business. It's going to ultimately help with employee wellbeing and health, and help employees be retained, stay on the job, be happy and healthy, and that's good for business.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Emily Hunter, professor and department chair of management, and Dr. Cindy Wu, professor of management and associate dean for diversity and inclusion here on Baylor Connections. This study got a lot of attention, Doctor. I mentioned at the top of the show Washington Post, Yahoo, Entrepreneur, Esquire, just to name a few. Did you expect that to get that kind of attention when you started it?
Emily Hunter:I think a researcher always hopes that people will read the research that you write, and that is rarely satisfied. And so it was wonderful to get a bit of media attention just for the purpose of actually getting the word out about our findings, so that we can practically help people, and help their workday lives be better.
Cindy Wu:Yeah. I personally did not expect that will get so much media attention, but it was a pleasant surprise. At the same time, it also helps us to think, what would be the practical implications that we can communicate to the business professionals, to the day-to-day employees, and to the leaders and managers? So it's a very beneficial process for us as well.
Derek Smith:Curious, you all collaborated on this study before COVID-19 hit. Have you followed up on any of these areas. Or did COVID-19 highlight the impact of some of these even more? How has that played out?
Emily Hunter:Absolutely. The wonderful thing at Baylor is, I see so many faculty that are really diving in to investigate our current workplace, and how work has changed since COVID-19. And I have lots of colleagues who are doing amazing work in that area. The one example I have on this stream of research in breaks is, we have a study that's all ready to go, and we have great ideas, and we have a great method. And since COVID we have struggled to find a company willing to let us come in and collect data. So I'm finding that companies are very busy, employees are overworked these days. It's harder for us researchers to come in and convince the company to give us their employee time. So that's kind of where I'm at in this time today.
Cindy Wu:So we can also use this as a public announcement to recruit, right?
Emily Hunter:Right. If anyone's companies are interested-
Derek Smith:If you're listening, yes. Yeah. If you Google Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu you'll find the contact information.
Cindy Wu:That's right, that's right.
Derek Smith:Yes. Well, we're heading into the final few minutes of the program. And I want to ask you, the challenge is, you all do so much research that focuses on different important areas that it's hard to do them justice. But, Doctor Wu, I'll start with you. A broad question in navigating stress, finding energy, and making it all work at home, beyond what we've been talking about, there's some key takeaways that you'd like to share with listeners from your research in those areas?
Cindy Wu:Sure. A few things, also in consideration of other research findings and other research studies that I have done. This idea of taking effective breaks or helping people flourishing is really about energy management. So we can consider ourselves as a energy plant, if you will. So if there's any way that you can reserve the energy, if there's any way that you can get more energy, whether this energy is related to the work directly or not. Because the idea is that we have this pool of energy that we can draw from. So if we can find ways to replenish that energy by either sleeping or eating well. Or in one of our studies, we even found that by engaging in physically active leisure, that will help us magnify the benefit that we get from the work and transfer that benefit to the family domain. So that's an example of even if this energy is not directly related to work energy, but you are replenishing your overall energy. So that will help you become more effective in the work area and in the family area. And the second thing is, if you can find more effective way to harness, to mobilize these resources, to allocate them, then that's also going to help you to become more effective in different ways of life, different areas of life.
Derek Smith:That's great. And, Dr. Hunter, I'm going to similarly broad question for you. Topics or takeaways in work-family balance that you'd like to share?
Emily Hunter:Yeah. So, I do similar research to Cindy, and we've collaborated on several projects. But like Cindy is saying, I love looking at how one life domain enriches another. So, how your role as a parent can teach you skills that help you be better in your work role and vice versa. One of the studies that I love that we've collaborated on looks at breaks in a work-family context. So, we looked at breaks specifically where people had encounters with their family members over the phone, or maybe lunch with a spouse during the workday. And we found that when those encounters were enjoyable, it contributed to employees having better mood, better positive mood after their break. Which ultimately led them to be more satisfied in their family life, and more family functioning in the long run. So we found that people can really reap benefits from even very brief encounters with family members while on workday breaks, as long as they find those encounters really enjoyable. That was kind of the key in that other study.
Cindy Wu:Right. So, related back to what, Derek, you asked earlier, what are some of the myths? I think this is also one of the myths, let work, be work, leave family away from work, and let work be work. But what we found is if taking a little time away from work to handle your family business, whether it is planning a birthday party that you need to plan for the weekend, or whether it is having a conversation with your spouse, with your child during the break time. As long as it brings you joy, then you will come back with better mood and positive emotions.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, that sounds good. A lot of good takeaways here. We'll have to talk to you all more again, because there's a lot of other threads that people can apply. But it's been a lot of fun to have you on here, fun to learn more about the collaborative research you all do. So thanks so much for taking time to join us on the program today.
Cindy Wu:Thank you.
Emily Hunter:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Wonderful to have you both. Dr. Emily Hunter, professor and department chair of management, and Dr. Cindy Wu, professor of management and associate dean for diversity and inclusion, our guests today Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.