Five things managers should know about breaks and productivity

Breaks are a controversial area of management and leadership, as the recent comments by Sydney Ports chief executive, Grant Gilfillan, remind us.

The Port could achieve a 20% increase in productivity by insisting that workers in the terminal stagger their lunch breaks, Gilfillan told the Australian Financial Review. He referred to practices of staggering meal breaks in the mining industry, but when contacted by LeadingCompany to explain how the changes could work, he was having the day off. His absence is not at odds with Gilfillan’s philosophy; he is not suggesting anyone work harder or miss their breaks or rostered days off, “It’s about coordinating the way people work,” he told the paper.

Productivity expert Saul Eslake, an economist at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, tells LeadingCompany that managers should think about the scheduling of work “all the time”. “It is management’s job to combine labour and capital to most efficiently produce goods and services,” he says.

1. Staggering breaks

    The mining industry uses staggered meal breaks as a way to keep core pieces of machinery running continuously. For over a decade, the mining industry has introduced practices such as hot seat changes, staggered meal breaks, meals in the field and refuelling machinery during breaks as a means to keep core equipment is kept running continuously.

    This is also relevant to the service industry, Eslake says, particularly when customers use their own lunch break to access those services.

    Any operation – services or products – can suffer from a bottleneck, Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures points out in an article on eliminating them. “Our operation is only as fast as our slowest process. To be successful, we need to target and eliminate bottlenecks.”

    2. Not every break is a good break

      Breaks are widely lauded as a productivity booster by consultants and researchers, but recent research has suggested otherwise. Recent research (reported in LeadingCompany) by Professor Charlotte Fritz of Portland State University found that short breaks, such as a coffee break, does not reinvigorate us and return us to the task with renewed energy unless we do something related to work in the break. A related task, such as praising another colleague, can deliver an energy boost, but looking at Facebook or making a personal call does nothing for your energy levels, and may even diminish them.


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