Q&A: How often should shiftworkers take breaks?
In addition the usual 30 minute meal break, workers on 8-hour shifts typically get two 10- or 15-minute breaks. Those on 12-hour shifts often get three short breaks, plus a longer meal break.
While this is a common practice, it’s not necessarily the best. Companies wishing to maximize breaks’ effectiveness in keeping employees alert and productive may wish to take a different approach — shortening the meal break while increasing the number of short breaks.
This strategy offers several advantages over the traditional model. First, the typical 30-minute meal break can be counterproductive on the night shift because it may inadvertently encourage workers to eat a full meal.
Due to fluctuations in circadian rhythms, we have great difficulty digesting food at night. So shiftworkers are better off avoiding full meals between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Employees who choose to eat a normal-sized meal at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. are likely to have trouble working through the difficult hours from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.
With the time gained from a reduced meal break, you can allow additional short breaks. Employees often find that frequent breaks are an effective way to reduce fatigue and boredom.
A 10-minute break allows workers enough time to leave their work stations and take a short walk or eat a snack — activities that go a long way toward reducing the feeling that they face a marathon stretch of work.
In environments in which workers can easily cover for each other, workers would ideally take a 10- to 15-minute break every two to 2.5 hours. This can mean as many as four breaks on an 8-hour schedule and five breaks on 12s (including the shortened meal break).