This July 4th, serve your country by taking a break

Regular breaks, or “productivity pauses,” are crucial for the well-being and effectiveness of public servants.

For federal employees, Independence Day is about more than BBQs and fireworks. It’s a time to take pride in serving our country while also recharging by stepping away from that work.

As federal employees, we need to bring this mindset into the everyday. The benefits of vacations and weekends fade quickly amid heavy workloads, bureaucracy and meetings. Regular breaks, or “productivity pauses,” are crucial for the well-being and effectiveness of public servants. It is possible —and essential — to create a culture where self-care is seen as wise, not weak, in government.

Biological basis for breaks

Our biology explains why we need breaks. The nervous system quickly responds to changing environments and threats as it controls essential functions like sleep, digestion, breathing, heart rate, mood and behavior. Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges explains that when our body senses safety we are calm and open, while perceived or real danger triggers a fight, flight or freeze response. These stress responses are beneficial in dangerous situations and can also help us focus to meet a work deadline.

However, our bodies hang onto this stress. For example, the pressure of back-to-back meetings or feelings of unworthiness put us into a “dysregulated” state where we are reactive, defensive and prone to burnout. A personal challenge (that I’m working on) is my tendency to stubbornly cling to ideas during stressful times or when I feel self-conscious about my value.

The need for nervous system regulation in government

Deep breaths, exercise, mindfulness, sleep or just doing nothing help us regulate our nervous system and return to a calm and open state. The Washington Post recently reported that breaks as short as 10 minutes “boost vigor, reduce fatigue” and make us “more focused, more productive and more creative.”

The idea that we don’t have time to take breaks is tempting. Many federal employees face rigid schedules and heavy workloads, making it difficult to take breaks. Stressful periods, like budget season, remote work, and genuine care for our work and colleagues make it hard to disconnect.

But these are not really breaks. More accurately, they are  “productivity pauses” that enable clearer thinking, better decisions and empathy. Cal Newport’s concept of Slow Productivity rejects “busyness as a badge of pride,” asserting that mixing busy periods and downtime enhances overall productivity. He contrasts this with “pseudo-productivity” where we mindlessly stare at our inbox, feeling overwhelmed. Newport argues that breaks, though they might not feel like work, are crucial for high-quality, creative and collaborative tasks.

The public needs federal employees to slow down. Taking a moment to breathe during heated discussions usually improves the outcome, just as a walk before an important meeting can help you stay calm under pressure. The General Accountability Office recently highlighted the broader impact of well-regulated nervous systems, connecting military readiness to sleep. The standards for hiring senior executives in government, known as the Executive Core Qualifications, emphasize qualities like flexibility and resilience, which are built on this biological regulation. On a personal note, while racing to finish this article, pausing to join a meditation group helped me return with fresh eyes.

Supporting each other

In the federal workplace we must be at least as vigilant about our nervous system as we are about cybersecurity, and we can’t do it in isolation. Leadership can shift culture by taking lunch breaks, encouraging collective pauses, and asking their teams about their self-care. We all play a role in normalizing nervous system regulation. When a colleague asks to reschedule a meeting during a busy week or take a break during a tough conversation, we can thank them for their self-awareness and care.

Finally, calm or stress can be contagious through a process called co-regulation. For example, a friend’s coworker who uses their lunch break to roller skate. This fun and unconventional break inspired others to step away from their desks and recharge.

Your productivity pauses

It would be nice if we could wish stress away. Mindful breathing may not be your cup of tea, but it’s important to find practices that help you be the best colleague and public servant you can be — and there are many options. Here are a few to explore:

  • Wellness walk: Schedule a walk to connect with a colleague before or after stressful meetings.
  • Meditation: Simple meditations like these ones for the Surgeon General or the 5-4-3-2-1 practice can calm nerves and improve mental clarity.
  • Cold water splash: Wash your face with cold water to refresh your body.
  • Dance break: For those who don’t think Taylor Swift belongs in government, a short dance break can help you “shake off” a stressful meeting.
  • Chocolate: A nibble (or five) of chocolate offers a delicious pause.

Independent, but connected

We need to talk about nervous systems in government. The public relies on federal employees to consistently show up as their best selves. Regulating our nervous systems over holidays like July 4th and in the everyday isn’t the opposite of work; it’s essential for it. This Independence Day and beyond, let’s give breaks the gravitas they deserve to create a healthier, more productive government.

Alex Snider is Strategy Lead for the President’s Management Agenda at the U.S. General Services Administration. Previously he spent 10 years as a diplomat at the U.S. Department of State, served as a Fellow in the Senate, and worked at the World Bank. He is a certified mindful facilitator from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, is a co-lead the federal government-wide Mental Health and Wellbeing Community of Practice, a Mindful GSA Ambassador, and co-founder of Mindful FED. You can find him on LinkedIn.

This op-ed is written in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of his agency or the United States.

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