In music, a break is the moment between two sounds. It gains its importance from what came before and after. In rhetoric it can increase the tension; it can be a full stop, a dash, or a question mark. Pupils in school feverishly await the break, and it’s often the same in the office. What else can a break do?
A musician appears on stage, bows, and sits down at the piano. He opens the music. And then ... he does nothing. In John Cage’s work 4’ 33”, the only instruc-tions to the musicians are not to play a single note for three movements. Although no music is heard, it is not quiet in the concert hall – you hear people in the audi-ence clearing their throats as they become uneasy. Chairs move, the air condi-tioning hums, muffled sounds from the street come into the hall. 4’ 33” is Cage’s invitation to listen into the silence, to recognise that it does not exist at all: silence is full of random sounds that we cannot turn off.
Even if Cage is right, and perhaps there is no such thing as absolute silence, we all know the longing for peace. Sometimes it's just time to call it a day. Enough of concentration, of good ideas. Sometimes you need to get your mind on other things, other topics, other faces. In other words: sometimes we just need a break.
Many studies have shown how important it is to take a break during work. Several small breaks during the workday help to increase concentration and structure your day. “Taking a break”, however, doesn’t necessarily mean doing absolutely nothing. A break is meant to vary your routine, if you can, you should change your location and let your thoughts wander. When you return you can start your next project with fresh energy, or gain a new perspective on an old project.
For many people, though, switching off is anything but easy. In Charlie Chaplin’s film, “Modern Times”, he is unable to stop repeating the uniform, monotonous hand motions from his assembly-line work after the end of his shift. A grotesque exaggeration? Of course. But doing nothing can be really difficult sometimes. People long for a break, and then when it comes, it’s hard to bear. If there noth-ing to do and there is absolute silence, people become nervous, just like when a pianist comes on stage and doesn’t play anything.
A result of today’s media society? Cultural philosopher Robert Pfaller believes that, in the digitised world, even relaxation is subject to the pressure to perform. We have to “work hard” at enjoyment to really relax in a substantial way. A com-fortable snooze becomes a power nap, a free Sunday becomes an opportunity to deliver high performances in sport and socialising. According to Pfaller, we want to use even small interruptions in an effective way, and we plug away at our work whenever the media allow us to do so.
Yet it is precisely when we really take a break that we have the best ideas. Stud-ies show that the most creative inspirations arrive when we least expect them: in the shower, during a walk, at lunch.
Knowledge work requires exchange and communication just as much as places for privacy, concentration, and relaxation. A quick sandwich at your desk for lunch? Better not – a company that values its work should provide appropriate spaces for short and long breaks. At least one longer break during the day is not just legally mandatory; it also does employees good. Switch locations, tank up on energy, let work be for a moment. The midday break is not just important to catch your breath. When else can you talk casually with colleagues that you may rarely see, in a relaxed atmosphere?
Breaks always have something do with silence, and that’s easier said than done at work. An open-plan office is often a place where it is difficult to concentrate. Constant activity disrupts reflection. This is why an intelligent office needs zones for privacy and for work that requires concentration.
In recent years we have heard more and more about a very special form of time-out: a sabbatical, or a longer, often paid break from professional life.
The idea of the sabbatical originally comes from the Torah, and it means leaving a field fallow every seven years so that the soil can recover from agricultural ac-tivity. University professors in the USA have adopted this model of time man-agement. Every few years, they enjoy a free semester or sabbatical that allows them to dedicate themselves to their research and then return with new energy and fresh knowledge to their teaching responsibilities. The creative industry is also familiar with sabbaticals. Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister closed his New York office several times for up to twelve months so that he could be in-spired by travel and work on new ideas, away from the madness of the everyday rush. His success confirms that he’s right: neither his business relationships nor his projects have suffered from these time-outs. On the contrary.
Even in larger companies, employees often have the opportunity to take a break. Companies such as BMW, Siemens, and McDonald’s offer sabbaticals in various formats. They are used primarily for personal or professional education, for a longer trip, or for social projects.
Because there are still no comprehensive regulations for sabbaticals, they are often negotiated with individual employees within corporate guidelines.
At McDonald’s, for example, every employee has the option to take a sabbatical every ten years. “This consists of four weeks of educational leave in combination with two weeks of annual holiday. If employees decide to use this time for further education in their specific area, we assume part or all of the costs,” says Ursula Rieger, press spokesperson for McDonald’s Austria.
Another option for the practical implementation of sabbaticals is to forego the payment of a full salary for a few years; the difference is then used to pay for a year off. Employees often save up holidays and overtime hours over a long peri-od of time in a time account that they can then “cash in” for a sabbatical.
For Dr Roloff, spokesperson for Allianz Austria, this trend is on the rise. Sabbati-cals don’t just help individual employees; they also play an important role in em-ployer branding: “It’s all about balancing the interests of both employees and employers. Allianz is a performance-oriented company that supports its employees. Employee loyalty is increased by a broad array of options, including a sabbatical.”
Ursula Rieger also emphasises that sabbaticals convey the fact that companies value their employees: “A sabbatical should offer the opportunity to step away from everyday life for a longer period of time, to recover, to take a break.” Those who would like to take a longer time-out but don’t quite dare to should at least take advantage of small breaks during their everyday routine.
So breathe in. Breathe out. Take a nice, deep breath…