Taking a break from screen work

Raj Kundhi, Senior physiologist

Taking a break from your screen

7 December 2023

How much of the day have you spent sitting down? Are you becoming easily distracted at your desk? When was the last time you took a break?

It’s easy to get caught up in work or worry about people thinking you’re not working hard enough if you’re not glued to your desk all day. But did you know you’ll probably feel better and get more done if you take regular breaks?

Breaks can help with your productivity, energy levels and overall wellbeing – particularly your mental health. Stepping away from your desk and giving your eyes a break from the screen will also help make you more focussed and efficient when you return.

Why is it so important to take a break?

The simple answer is that it’s not good for you to sit down or look at a computer screen for prolonged periods of time.

You might have a perfectly positioned computer screen, an ergonomic keyboard and a high-tech office chair. But no matter how good your work equipment is, you still need to move your body and give your eyes and mind a rest.

If you don’t, you’re at risk of experiencing all kinds of aches, pains and health concerns, including:

  • headaches and migraines,
  • sore eyes and visual fatigue,
  • postural fatigue,
  • back, hip and neck pain,
  • mental blocks,
  • difficulty focussing and poor concentration,
  • reduced productivity,
  • mental health issues like stress, anxiety and depression.

Making sure you’re taking breaks is of particular importance now that so many of us are working from home for some or all of the week. In years gone by, the daily commute meant we were naturally more mobile. The lunchtime trip to the shop, the afternoon coffee run and chats at the watercooler meant that some breaks took care of themselves.

But, while working from home, it’s easy to find yourself sitting still and not looking away from the screen for longer periods.

How does taking a break help?


One of the main reasons you might not take enough breaks is your workload. It can feel as though you simply can’t tear yourself away from your desk when there’s so much to do. But did you know you might get more done (and to a higher quality) if you step away for a while?

Studies have found that our performance and productivity decline the longer our brains spend locked onto one task.1 After a while, our brains can become too accustomed to something and lose focus.

Breaks can therefore help; even short breaks where you walk around the room, look away from your screen or make a drink.

Postural fatigue

When you remain static for prolonged periods of time, lactic acid can build-up within your muscles. This in turn leads to discomfort and ultimately, to muscle dysfunction and pain.

Over a longer period of time, muscles and ligaments can shorten or lengthen in response to a poor sitting posture, particularly around your spine and neck. This can create longer term discomfort that isn’t easy to relieve without professional treatment and advice.

So, it’s very important not to allow the effects of fatigue to accumulate. Stretching, contracting and generally using your muscles can greatly help prevent this.

There are also options available to help improve your working environment and make it more physically integrative. For example, standing desks, treadmill desks and under the desk pedal bikes and steppers. These will improve blood flow to your system and limit fatigue.

But, at the very least, you should aim to get up and move around at least once per hour.

>Read more: Top 10 exercises for a healthy back

Visual fatigue

Similarly, if you use your eyes in a prolonged and sustained manner, they will begin to fatigue. We blink less when we’re looking at a screen, which can cause dryness. And only looking at one fixed point, such as a screen, can also cause physical strain on the eyes and lead to pain, blurred vision and tiredness.

It's important to prevent this by changing your visual focus regularly. You’ll achieve this by getting up from your desk, but you can also just look away from the screen for thirty seconds to just let your eyes focus on something else and have a rest. But don’t fall into the (easy) trap of switching one screen for another and looking at your phone.

Top tip: ever heard of the 20-20-20 rule? Take a break from looking at screens for 20 seconds, after every 20 minutes, by looking at something else 20 feet away.

What constitutes a break?

While it’s important to take a break, you need to make sure you’re taking the right kinds of breaks. There are lots of different things you can do to make the most of your time, even if you don’t have long. And different kinds of breaks can meet different needs throughout the day.

But there’s also a wrong way to take a break. Some activities can be more of a distraction or cause too much disruption to your day.

As a general rule, you should be looking to rest your eyes, rest your mind and move your body.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to help you plan your next break:

DO – Get some fresh air. Getting outside is an ideal way to take a break. It gets your body moving, gives your eyes a rest from your screen and allows your mind to switch off as you take in some fresh air.

DON’T – Make important or stressful phone calls. It can be tempting to use breaks as an opportunity to get some personal admin done, but that call to the bank or the gas company could make you stressed and doesn’t give your mind a rest. Why not call a loved one for a catch up instead, or just switch off and listen to some music.

DO – Get up and walk around. Even if you you’ve not got long and can’t leave the house or office, a short walk around is better than nothing. Stretching your legs is never a bad thing as it’ll help your posture and get your eyes to focus on something other than your screen.

DON’T – Go on social media. This is essentially swapping one screen for another, so you’re not giving your eyes a rest.

DO – Make drinks and have snacks. You need to drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated and help your concentration. And other drinks and healthy snacks can help maintain energy levels throughout the day and are a great way to make sure you’re getting up regularly.

DON’T – Skip lunch. You need to take a full lunch break, ideally at the same sort of time each day. This means getting away from your desk and taking your time over a proper, nutritious meal. Your surroundings and circumstances will determine exactly where you can go or what you can do, but make sure you’re not wolfing down a sandwich while huddled over your laptop.

DO – Exercise. If you’re able to get out for a run or go to the gym for an hour during the day, that’s great. But if it isn’t practical or convenient during the day, it can be a great thing to do before or after work. Done in the morning, exercise can leave you energised for the day ahead, while an evening session gets the blood flowing and switches your mind off after an afternoon of work. Why not book a class or training session to give you a fixed appointment you have to keep to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of working late?

Ultimately, what you’re able to do and where you can go for a break will depend on your circumstances. But, whatever you do, keep in mind that it’s always good to get up and move, a short break is better than nothing and don’t swap one screen for another.

How often should I take a break?

Various studies have been conducted over the years, so there’s a lot of research with differing approaches. But, as well as taking a full lunch break, one thing most seem to agree on is that we need to be taking short, regular breaks – also known as ‘microbreaks’.2

This is particularly important when working on a computer screen. One approach is to try taking around 10 minutes of break time for every hour at your screen. Ideally, this would be spread out throughout the hour.

It all depends on what’s most practical for you and what fits in best with your surroundings and circumstances. Make sure you go with an approach that’s practical for you, otherwise it’ll be difficult to stick to it.

If you struggle to remember to break there are plenty of ways you can remind yourself to take breaks, or make yourself get up and move:

  1. Make yourself move. Why not try keeping your phone and/or phone charger at the other end of the room, so you have to get up to answer calls or check messages? This can also be done with office equipment like your printer.
  2. Get in the habit. Get up to make yourself drinks or fill up your water regularly. Drinking lots of water is a healthy habit that’ll see you getting up for regular refills and comfort breaks. Win/win.
  3. Break by association. You can also associate a break or change in posture with tasks that you undertake regularly. For example, stand up and walk around when taking phone calls if it’s feasible, or take your laptop to a different room for a meeting when working from home. You can also combine this with the above and make sure you get up to make a drink or refill your water before the start of any meeting.
  4. Set reminders. Whether you set a reminder on your phone, or add breaks to your work calendar, you can easily use technology to prompt you to move or take a break. Many smart watches and sports watches have this feature too.
  5. Use software. Taking things to the next level, you can also get specially designed software that reminds you to take breaks in several different ways. Some of them can be downloaded free from the internet to your phone or computer, so always check with your employer before downloading anything.
  6. Task rotation. If you take on a number of different tasks, break them up into shorter jobs and alternate them. For example, if you need to respond to numerous emails, and also need to read a number of documents, try not to reply all the emails at once. By alternating your tasks, you’re less likely to lose focus and you’ll invariably have microbreaks between different kinds of tasks.


  1. Brief diversions vastly improve focus - Science Daily
  2. The tiny breaks that ease your body and reboot your brain - BBC Worklife 

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