9 Ways to Take a Break at Work When You’re Overwhelmed

You’ve been staring at spreadsheets for hours in preparation for a big meeting with your boss. Meanwhile, your inbox is overflowing with unread emails, your stomach is grumbling in protest of the bag of pretzels you had for lunch, and your body is aching from being rooted in a desk chair all day. Or maybe you’ve been on your feet in a fast-paced retail or food-service setting, folding clothes or waiting tables or ringing up customers.

When the demands of your job seem to outnumber the hours in your shift, the natural impulse is to do more, so you can get ahead of your ever-growing to-do list. You might think the more (and faster) you work, the quicker you’ll get caught up and finally find time to take a breather. But the reality is, that may never happen. Trying to keep up with a busy, demanding job is a bit like bailing water from a sinking boat—on the heels of every freshly completed task, there will always be a new one. It’s up to you to take a break when your mental and physical health demand it.

Cincinnati-based psychotherapist Laurie Sharp-Page points out that just like any muscle, the brain gets fatigued with prolonged use. "Just as you would take a break at the gym to help your body rest prior to resuming exercise, taking a break at work is key to continued focus and productivity," she says. "We will often talk ourselves out of taking breaks, which can sound like ‘I'm too busy,’ ‘I feel guilty about taking a break’ or ‘no one else is taking a break, so I probably shouldn't.’ But we need breaks within our day in order to sustain ourselves."

Breaks are not self-indulgent, Sharp-Page says—they are self-care. "We need to take care of ourselves. If we don't, our quality suffers and we are more likely to burn out over time," she warns.

Not sure how to fit breaks into your day? Try these surprisingly easy ways to recharge during your shift.

Take an off-site lunch break.

If you have time for a longer lunch break, make it a point to get away from your workplace during that timeframe, suggests career and workplace analyst Laura Handrick from FitSmallBusiness.com. That could mean meeting a friend for lunch at your favorite café, or just walking to a quiet outdoor location to eat in the sunshine.

"Avoid the temptation to use your lunch break to run to the bank, pick up dry cleaning or grab a few groceries—that's still work, and will add to your stress," Handrick warns. "Instead, take advantage of your break to calm your racing work mind. Afterward, you'll feel better about work, and perhaps more energetic and creative, than if you had simply plowed through the workday without caring for yourself."

Step away.

Sharp-Page says the most effective way to take a break at work is to physically step away from whatever you’re doing. "This can be anxiety-provoking, but continuing to engage in your work when you are feeling overwhelmed will reduce your quality and increase the likelihood of mistakes or miscommunication," she explains. "In order to reset the brain, you need to remove yourself from your workspace." If you attempt to take a break while at your desk, she says, your brain will continue to associate that space with work, and will have a hard time disengaging and recharging.

Shift to an off-screen task.

If your job calls for you to stare at your computer all day, schedule some chunks of time to focus on off-screen activities. Deborah Quilter, author of "The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book," warns that too much screen time can cause repetitive strain injury (RSI). She recommends taking a break from computer work every 20 minutes.


Lynn Roberts, president of Innergy Corporate Yoga, cites stretching as an effective way to invigorate tight, stiff muscles from sitting too long. It also promotes better circulation, increases blood flow also to the brain and boosts energy, among other benefits.

You don’t even have to leave your desk to squeeze in a rejuvenating stretching session. There are plenty of stretches that can be done right from your chair.

Go for a brisk walk.

Health blogger Nicole Small’s go-to work break activity is to take a 20-minute outdoor walk that loops around her office. "By the time I get back to my desk, I've raised my heart rate a bit, walked off any frustration from projects I'm working on and I'm usually in a much more cheerful mood. Even better, I normally return to my desk with new ideas to tackle complex problems. I love that I get to combine taking a break, fitting exercise into my workday and getting some sunshine."

Don’t have 20 minutes? Even a five-minute walk—or just a few trips up and down a staircase—can provide some rejuvenation.

Do a mini meditation.

Stress management coach Susan Petang with The Quiet Zone Coaching guides her clients through mini meditations that can be done right at their desks. "Pick up any object from your desk, purse or pocket," she suggests. "Take a minute to really observe it closely—what color(s) is it? What does it feel like? What patterns can you find? Observe the object without judgement for at least 30 seconds. It's helpful if you can take a minute to close your eyes and focus on the sounds of your environment or your breathing afterward. It brings your attention back to the moment and re-centers you, so you’ll be ready for the next task."

Make a cup of tea…

…or any snack or drink that is comforting to you. "Allow yourself to not rush through this process, but be mindful and enjoy it," suggests Sharp-Page. "Being mindful helps us to reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm, and helps us to engage in our self-care in an intentional manner."

Take a band break.

Amber Nash, founder of Fit Healthy Best, recommends keeping a light resistance band in your desk drawer or work bag for quick strength training stints throughout the day.

"One study showed that just 10 minutes of exercise, like resistance training with bands, can boost brain functions, including problem-solving and concentration," she notes. "Research shows your muscles can grow, adapt and change from short bursts of exercise like these."

Nash recommends doing 10 reps of chest flys, shoulder presses, bent-over rows, bicep curls, squats, lunges and calf raises to wake up the muscle fibers and increase blood flow throughout your body.

Drink plenty of water.

By combining hydration with your work breaks, you’ll get double the health benefits. Registered nurse Ashley Wood warns that when in a state of dehydration, it becomes difficult to focus. "Drinking water has two benefits: The more you drink, the better hydrated you’ll be and you’ll have to go to the bathroom more frequently, which gives you a reason to get up and move around," she points out.