Designers Mind: Wellbeing becoming work’s partner – part two

Image: Mika Korhonen (via Unsplash)

Continuing the conversation about the relationship between work and wellbeing, Kaye Preston is this time joined by Designers Mind contributor Kael Gillam to talk about the importance of rest.

In the last issue I discussed the importance of considering wellbeing as work’s partner and how prioritising our health can lead to improved performance, creativity, productivity, better focus and ability to make decisions. This month I want to follow up with a “Part Two” on the subject, focusing specifically on the importance of rest. I’ve also asked Kael Gillam, Principal Lighting Designer at Hoare Lea and Designers Mind contributor to join me in exploring the topic further.

Before we dive in, I felt that this quote from Alex Pang, author and former tech consultant – “Rest is not work’s opposite, rest is work’s partner” – was worth revisiting, as it plants a seed for changing our mindsets. It sparked the idea for these two columns while highlighting the importance of taking breaks throughout the day.

So, what does rest truly mean for our working day?

Taking rest is as essential an act as working because one cannot exist without the other. When we choose to rest, it means that we’ve identified a need to change focus from the world outside us to the world within. Resting is, in a way, about setting boundaries with yourself; it’s knowing how long you can be active and productive without wearing away your mental and physical energies, and acting on that self-awareness.

Knowing your limits will be a process that’s very personal, but there are some more universal signs of fatigue that might accompany them. This can take the form of either physical – experiencing eye strain, headaches, or musculoskeletal pain – or mental signals – lack of creativity, feelings of isolation, and inability to make decisions.

Viewing rest as a positive action can be challenging in the face of deadlines or personal hardship. It’s easy to feel that rest is ‘cheating’ or that it’s not ‘deserved’ until a goal is met. But if we ignore our body’s signals to rest, then the feelings of overwhelm, tension, and fatigue begin to mount until they are unmanageable and begin to edge towards burnout. And to be clear, rest does not mean ‘sleep’, though we would certainly encourage regular and quality sleep as a boon to both mental and physical health.

Rest can mean writing in a journal, going for a coffee, visiting friends, or taking a holiday. Taking time away from your computer does not mean you’re not still working, it simply means you’ve displaced yourself from your work station. Good ideas and problem solving need not happen in front of a screen; they can happen on a walk through a garden or a trip to the store. We can also plan rest into our day much the same way that we plan meetings or appointments. Blocking out time in our day for ourselves is a reminder that there is no compartmentalising ‘work’ you and ‘life’ you: wellbeing doesn’t get put on hold when you’re in working hours.

Our process as creatives is just as fluid and changing as the energy we bring with us, and we should be open and honest about how much and what kind of rest we need on a daily basis. Some days we feel more focused and ready to work on strenuous tasks, some days we are only able to give fleeting moments of attention. Learning your rhythms and signals will allow you to know your boundaries and act on your intuition when you need a break.

And, if you work in an office, you might just be a positive influence on others when you make these choices. If your rest looks like finding the company of others, you can take walks or get coffee with colleagues. If rest looks like finding time on your own, you can look for a quiet spot around your workplace to sit and collect your thoughts. No matter what form your rest takes, it should encourage and invigorate you to continue through your day. 

What does the research say?

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab conducted a study (Mar 2021) investigating the impact of taking breaks on our stress levels. The study focused specifically on taking breaks between meetings and the effect having back to back meetings can have on our levels of stress, fatigue, focus and engagement.

“Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in those meetings,” says Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group.

The research was clear, rest between meetings allowed the brain to reset, increased the ability to focus and decreased levels of stress overall. Now what if we applied this research to all tasks and changed our mindsets about the importance of taking breaks throughout the day? It may feel counterproductive to take time away from our desks and work but the research shows the opposite to be true.

Here are five strategies to build more rest into your day:

1. Take advantage of natural pauses between tasks. Instead of diving immediately into the next thing, take a few moments for yourself to reset.

2. Plan wellbeing time into your day. Things that aren’t planned often don’t get done. Treat your wellbeing practices like you would a meeting and schedule in the time.

3. Set reminders on your phone. Use tech to your advantage to help create new habits around taking breaks and building moments of rest into your day.

4. Be intentional about meetings. Consider what you want to achieve and also the length of time actually required.

5. Choose activities that calm the mind. Meditation, breathing exercises or a walk outside in nature can all help reduce stress levels.

Let’s change our mindsets around rest and start seeing it as a productive part of our day. A partner of our work, an ally to our creativity and focus, a supporter of our physical and mental health, and key to our overall wellbeing.

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