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Why Smartphone Breaks At Work Aren't Such A Bad Idea

In that cubicle by the water cooler you see him: your employee, on your dime, tilted back in that pricey Herman Miller chair, his personal smartphone in hand. Judging by the furrowed brow, you'd guess it's a hot game of Words With Friends.

Which do you do?

1. Chastise him.
2. Ignore him.
3. Give him a smile and a thumbs-up, and suggest he keep playing.

Yeah, it's kind of a trick question. Because according to new research from Kansas State University, the answer is No. 3.

We don't usually write about studies with fewer than 100 participants, but this one seems so fun — and let's be honest, who doesn't want a reason to play more and work a few minutes less? — that we thought it was worth mentioning.

Doctoral student Sooyeol Kim had his subjects — 72 full-time employees — put an app on their phones to track workweek usage on their personal devices. The human guinea pigs averaged 22 minutes on the phones out of an eight-hour day — about 4.6 percent of the workday. That's not much more than an occasional bathroom break (or way less, but we're not going to ask what you do in there). That's really not a lot of down time, considering many Americans work through lunch or don't take much vacation from their jobs.

In the study, the participants noted how they felt about their well-being at the end of each workday. The workers who took smartphone breaks were happier come quitting time. Kim says these "microbreaks" benefit both employees and their employers, since the smartphone time allows people to play a quick game or connect with family or friends.

"We found that employees can recover from some of their stress to refresh their minds and take a break," he said in a statement.

But before you think you're going to be able to dominate Dots all day, every day, this study doesn't mean every human resources department should start advocating for iPhone time. Kansas State notes that playing on your smartphone is similar to other types of microbreaks, like getting coffee, walking around or talking with co-workers. Like most things in life, it's all about balance.

"For example, if I would play a game for an hour during my working hours, it would definitely hurt my work performance," Kim added. "But if I take short breaks of one or two minutes throughout the day, it could provide me with refreshment to do my job."

An hourlong game, sure, will hurt performance. But someone taking aim at a few Angry Birds here and there might have a winning habit. The human mind isn't built for focusing intently on work for hours on end, nonstop. We need mental as well as physical breaks.

The positive effect of microbreaks means that companies don't necessarily need a Google-sized budget for foosball tables, cushy sofas and coconut water to keep employees happy. Some extra cellphone chargers might not hurt, though.

Now excuse us while we go check iMessage.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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