Go ahead, take a load off

Experience shows a well-rested shop is a more productive shop

Jennifer Falcone, Mark Mallett and Pete Nelson — all of Bellingham Business Eview — take a break on the rooftop outside the company’s Fairhaven headquarters. When not on the rooftop, Eview employees take breaks in a variety of ways, including participation in games of dodgeball or going on short walks.

Dan Hiestand
   For Melanie Springer, it can occur when gazing at a postcard-sized picture. For Pete Nelson, it’s often evident in a short walk outside. And for customer service manager Mark Mallett, it can happen when he hurls rubber balls at co-workers at the YMCA in Bellingham.
   The first Friday of every month, Mallett and his fellow employees at Bellingham Business Eview, a Web-based company in Fairhaven, gather at the YMCA for a calorie-burning, stress-reducing session of dodgeball.
   Why does his company do it?
   “It’s a very silly thing to do,” said Mallett, who said worker family members often participate as well. “It’s very hard to have any ego involved or be very serious when you’re doing it, so it’s a very good mind shift out of work and into your home life.”
   In other words, it’s a break from work. For many, the practice of taking a break is one that is ignored — often with detrimental consequences, said Springer, a 39-year-old positive psychology counselor in Bellingham.
   “If you can take care of yourself and put yourself first, you’re going to be so much better in all the other areas of your life,” said Springer. “If you are a stressed-out employee, but you take the time to go for a walk outside, and stretch and drink a lot of water and eat right and exercise, you’re going to be a much more productive employee.”
   Productivity, employee well-being and customer service are all areas that can be impacted by breaks, and gauging whether you are taking enough of them may help you gauge whether your business is living up to its full potential.

Do we take enough breaks?
   In 2002, managers told workers on the bottling line at a Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Kentucky they could only take four restroom breaks per 8 1/2-hour shift, with only one being unscheduled. The policy, which was reversed soon after it was introduced due to outcry by labor officials and company employees, also stated that extra trips to the restroom could result in reprimands — and workers with six violations could be fired.
   This kind of policy doesn’t sit will with Pete Nelson, co-founder of Bellingham Business Eview, which started operating in April. Nelson said ensuring employee satisfaction only helps him further his business goals.
   “If your employees are feeling good about themselves, they’re better employees,” he said. “You have to make your employees feel like people and to be in touch with themselves and to want to take care of themselves emotionally, spiritually and physically.”
   Nelson said his father, Wayne, was a big proponent of employee wellness, as well as a shrewd businessman. Wayne is the former chairman of McNeil Consumer Products Company, makers of Tylenol.
   “My father built Tylenol. And that was a policy (employee wellness) that I saw from him from the very beginning,” said Pete Nelson. “If you have a happy employee, who does that transfer to? It transfers to your customers. If you can get your employees feeling good about you, feeling good about the business, they relay that to the customers.”
   Pete Nelson said his father tried to help employees lessen stress because stress at the workplace didn’t help further the company’s goals.
   “You want people to implement ways to relieve stress in their lives,” he said. “If (employees) have bad stress, they are going to take it into the workplace. And one of the ways to do that is to implement a culture that says employee wellness is vital.”
   Pete Nelson said he doesn’t feel workers take enough breaks during the day, and sometimes he falls into the trap of overworking as well — especially as a recent startup business.
   “It’s hard sometimes. I don’t walk as much as I want to because I’m busier,” said the 42-year-old, a father of four who averages 80 hours of work per week. “But I think it’s important to put priority (on taking a break). Balance is important.”
   But it doesn’t seem to be a reality.
   A 2003 survey developed by OfficeTeam, a staffing service company, said the average time spent on lunch breaks was 42 minutes — and shrinking. Approximately 31 percent of respondents said it was shorter compared to the length of their breaks in 2000. The survey, conducted by an independent research firm, included responses from 150 executives with the nation’s 1,000 largest companies.
   Springer, who started counseling this year professionally after working in real estate for 20 years, said stepping away from the job is important because it keeps you in tune with issues you may not be aware of until it’s too late.
   “We don’t take enough breaks, so what is that doing to people?” she asked. “(People) are not (consciously) breathing enough, they are not stretching enough and I bet most people who don’t take enough breaks are suffering from neck pain, shoulder pain, eye strain — the physiological effects of stress are immense on your body.”

Them’s the breaks
   Breaks can take many forms — not just playing dodgeball, said Nelson.
   “We promote people taking walks everyday,” said Pete Nelson, who also worked as a regional director of cardiovascular health for the state of Florida. He said one of his duties with the state included conducting worksite wellness programs with businesses that encouraged taking breaks for focus and energy. “(At Bellingham Business Eview), we go out and take a 10-or 15-minute walk in the morning. We’ll take a 10- or 15-minute walk in the afternoon to break the ice and to feel a little more energized. That’s one of the things we always push.”
   Springer said she suffered from physical and mental strain due to stress, especially when she first started in real estate. Now, she has learned to better deal with the stress of work and raising her three kids — often using simple techniques.
   “Whenever I take a break, I try what’s called thought-stopping,” Springer said. “Whatever is bothering me or causing me stress at the moment, I stop that thought, and then I go to my place.”
   Her place happens to be the palm-tree dotted beach she grew up on in Hawaii.
   “When I take a break in my mind, I go straight to that beach, and I’m on a raft in the water,” she said. “And I can feel the warm water, I can hear the water lapping up against the raft. I can smell the salt air; I can feel the breeze on my face. And it’s very comforting and soothing and calming.”
   She said she also does breathing exercises on the hour, which also help to lessen her stress levels.
   “None of us breathe enough,” Springer said. “Concentrate on your breathing and try to breathe in as slowly as possible and out as slowly as possible, and do that about 10 times. There are mental benefits with that because it’s clearing your mind, and there are also physiological benefits, as it slows down your heart rate.”
   And break location doesn’t have to matter, she said.
   “When you’re at a red light, you can do your deep breathing,” she said. “You need to think of something throughout your day that will trigger the thought (of doing deep breathing).”
   Creating a comfortable work environment can also go a long way toward helping you make the most of your breaks, she said.
   “If you work in an office, it’s really important to claim your space,” Springer said. “To have things in your space that remind you of a happy part of you — pictures of your kids or drawings that your kids did, a picture of your pet, a favorite lamp. They are like an anchor to remind you of what’s good in your life to help de-stress yourself.”
   Perhaps the most important thing to remember, Springer said, is to make time for ‘you’ during the week. In other words, make taking breaks as important as keeping professional appointments.
   “When you are looking at your schedule for the week, make sure you block off time just for you,” she said. “That might mean saying no to things, or trying to do less in your life. Or making positive changes in your life to allow you the time to take the breaks.”
   Pete Nelson agreed, and then some.
   “It’s good (to take breaks) when you’re feeling stressed out — that before you react to a situation, you go out and walk,” he said. “That helps you to be a little more proactive with issues that you’re taking on. If suddenly things are getting a little stressful, back up a little bit. Go out and walk, and come back in with a new perspective.”



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