Should Companies Give Employees Recess?

A resurgence in recess advocacy throughout U.S. public schools based on research showing it improves cognitive function and focus has Managing Editor Frank Kalman wondering if businesses should consider giving employees space to create their own recess-like break during the workday.

Each and every workday at about 1 p.m., I partake in an activity that brings me back to my childhood: recess.

Well, sort of.

Recess was easily the highlight of my school days as a kid, as I imagine it was for most children. When I was in school, my friends and I would organize these epic touch-football recess games. There must have been 15-20 of us that would break out in two teams and play football on the playground each day. We’d play for about 30-45 minutes and then return to our classrooms to continue learning multiplication, fractions and whatever else children in grammar school learned in the mid-1990s. I imagine today’s kids are doing something similar with their recess time — or maybe they’re all just sitting around staring into their smartphones like the adults.

As I got older, particularly throughout high school and college, recess faded as a part of my daily activity routine. But as I’ve established my professional work style, I’ve come into the habit of taking a daily recess again in the form of a roughly hourlong midday workout at the gym in our office building. Ok, so it’s not recess in the traditional sense. My co-workers and I aren’t darting outside with football in hand, picking teams and going at it for 45 minutes. We’re not drawing with sidewalk chalk or initiating intense games of four square. There isn’t a playground with swings and monkey bars near our corporate office cluster in downtown Chicago. But a man can dream, can’t he?

While it may not be recess in the school-aged child sense, I consider my gym time to be a cherished part of what makes me productive throughout the day. If for whatever reason I’m unable to sneak in my recess I can easily turn into an unfocused mess in the afternoons. It doesn’t matter how many extra hours I stay at the office, that time spent without a recess in the middle isn’t as efficient or focused as it is on the days when I’m able to get away from my desk and break a healthy sweat.

Believe it or not, the idea of allowing time for recess in schools is making a resurgence, after a brief period when pressures to increase student scores on government-mandated standardized tests led some administrators to pull back on playtime in favor of more time spent learning math or science. But as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, more school districts are bringing back recess — some are even expanding it — as more studies show the breaks to get kids outside and run around help with cognitive functionality once they’re back in the classroom.

I imagine it must be the same for adults. This makes me wonder if more companies should start mandating some form of recess in their offices, or at least encourage employees to get out and away from their desks for a decent portion of their day. Formal recess time or not, companies would be wise to consider how they’re allowing their employees time away from. Certainly taking breaks every hour or so for 10-15 minutes is worthwhile, but I encourage companies to take it a step further and allow their workers the opportunity to go for a run outside, at the gym or even organize a brief pickup football or basketball game among co-workers.

And it’s not just companies or bosses that have to lead in this regard. Employees have to take the initiative to try to incorporate breaks and recess time into their work routine. For many workers, I imagine this is a challenge; they want to do their work during the day and be able to go home promptly when the official workday is over. Some workers simply feel overworked without any bandwidth to take such a significant break. This means they’re hesitant to waste a second during the day with anything that isn’t considered work.

To them, I say, why can’t you have both? It isn’t uncommon that my gym time in the middle of the day makes me more productive on my afternoon tasks. And if for whatever reason I still have work to finish up at night or early the next morning before coming into the office, I don’t mind doing it then, because my midday run is so essential to what makes me function to begin with. Not only does it help me maintain a healthy and active lifestyle physically, but it also helps my mental health and cognitive function and, perhaps most important, focus.

To be sure, what works for me won’t necessarily work for everybody. Maybe it’s not recess in the physical sense that is important to you. And maybe there are other responsibilities outside of work that make you think it would be wasteful and challenging to use time during a workday to take anything other than a short break for lunch. Maybe lunchtime isn’t the right time for your recess. Maybe it’s before work early in the morning, or after work at night.

It doesn’t matter when. In the work-smarter-not-harder age, understanding how to be the most productive and highest performing employee you can be often involves knowing how to spend the time you’re not working. Instituting some sense of daily recess into your lives, a time for unstructured play or a decent mental break from thinking and work, will make you more focused and productive — and your company will be better as a result.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email