Mindful micro-breaks—The potential of a 10-minute “paws”

Mindful micro-breaks are an evidence-based approach to increasing your energy and cognitive function while at work. And they’ll even make you more resilient when navigating stress and conflict.

By Sonja Olson, DVM

Your brain is like a smartphone: When it has been running multiple apps all day long, the battery drains, and performance starts to lag. Your psychological and physical wellbeing are concurrently impacted.

There are scientifically backed methods to recharge our metaphorical batteries and boost our overall vigor: Mindful micro-break techniques are like plugging into a power bank to allow for a quick top-up of energy and focus.

What are “mindful micro-breaks?”

First, some definitions. A “micro-break” is a brief cessation of work, physical, exertion, or activity, while a “mindful microbreak” is an intentional, individualized reset to calm, focus, and fuel the productive mind and healthy body.

Research has demonstrated that intentional, mindful micro-breaks can have valuable impacts in as little as 10 minutes. When compassionate mindful attention is combined with those micro-breaks that have been found to uniquely work for you through trial and error, the combination can serve to replenish your energy, reset your mental and emotional state, and restore equilibrium.

Common barriers: Guilt and time

The guilt

How do we get over the guilt of taking a break from the work of our lives?

Even when employees are encouraged to take breaks, most survey respondents report that, although they believe that breaks allow for increased energy and productivity, there is the counterintuitive thinking that “taking breaks is a waste of time” and that less work will get done.

Self-care may feel selfish to those caregivers who are likely to put everyone else’s needs before their own. Many veterinary professionals share the double whammy of being people-pleasers and individuals who deeply care about the wellbeing of our animal patients. This combination may result in a feeling of letting others down if time is taken to attend to our own needs.

Time scarcity

Lean staffing for a high workload has been, and currently is, the reality for most veterinary teams. It may feel impossible and unrealistic that team members could individually take five- to 10-minute breaks (separately from a meal break), perhaps even more than once a shift. And there’s the idea that working continuously without taking a break will increase the likelihood of getting out of work closer to on time.

Valuable, evidence-based reasons to support a micro-break culture

Despite these common misconceptions, the research tells a different story about micro-breaks:

  • Breaks can prevent decision fatigue and boost cognitive resilience and morale.
  • Breaks restore motivation, especially for long-term goals or very involved tasks/projects.
  • Breaks increase productivity and creativity. Working for long stretches without breaks leads to mental stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes mental resources, and supports creative thinking.
  • Taking regular breaks raises our level of engagement which is highly correlated to productivity and effective teaming (e.g., increased efficiency, improved communication with clients and colleagues, and more effective utilization of resources to support high-quality patient care).
  • Breaks help us to re-evaluate our goals and to gain perspective which fosters engagement with our work and compassion satisfaction.

Make micro-breaks happen

Ready to get started? Be realistic and use the “micro-steps” approach: Too-small-to-fail, science-backed strategies for real behavior change.

  • Set an intention at the beginning of your day or shift for yourself and with your team.
  • Set a self-care alarm for a break that is at least 10 minutes long that is nonwork related (I like BreakTimer and Stretchly).
  • Pass the “permission for a break” baton throughout the shift so that all teammates benefit and have accountability buddies.
  • Keep micro-break ideas and resources in your work area to make it easier than grabbing your phone and scrolling when you have a few minutes to take a breather.

Try things on with curiosity and awareness

Movement breaks. Moving is essential for physical and emotional health in all humans. Introduce periodic movements to the body throughout the day with a quick stretch, walk, or yoga break (I like the Best Ergonomic Exercises and Stretches to do at the Office Cubicle).

Activate “diffuse thinking.” Doodle or listen to music to encourage “diffuse thinking,” which allows the prefrontal cortex to rest and increases assimilation of knowledge, problem solving, and innovative thinking.

Phone or text a friend. Quick check-ins are associated with positive psychological outcomes such as increased social and emotional wellbeing, as well as protection from stressful events and anxiety-inducing moments.

Listen to a guided meditation. Distract your brain, reduce stress, and increase sense of calm (Try apps like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer).

Take your “Vitamin N” = Vitamin Nature! Research demonstrates that at least 10 minutes of being outdoors (or even near a window looking out at a natural landscape) with the intention of being present with the experience allows for a significant cortisol decrease and moves the physical and mental states from foggy to focused often with an improved overall perspective.

Try ‘waking rest’ (inemuri) or non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). Curious to know more about how to shift gears intentionally into heightened parasympathetic nervous system flow and slowed brain waves? Check out “What Is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)?” (sleepfoundation.org) and “Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR): Exploring a World Beyond Sleep” (positivepsychology.com).

Give micro-breaks a try

We can create a compassionate culture for ourselves and our veterinary teams utilizing intentional mini-resets. Fostering an environment that promotes growth and thriving of our leaders and associates is essential as we create the flourishing veterinary profession that supports the welfare of humans and animals alike.

Further reading


Photo credit: © Elena Nikolaeva E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.




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