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Take a break: Utilising the 7 types of rest to maximise productivity

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read

Research shows that resting is about more than just sleep. In fact, you need to be getting seven different types of rest.

Worker fatigue costs the Australian economy over $5 billion in lost productivity every year and causes almost 10,00 serious workplace injuries.

Beyond productivity, fatigue causes errors and can negatively impact the productivity of co-workers. With seven in 10 professionals suffering from exhaustion and burnout, getting rest right is crucial.


When Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith, a physician and work/life integration researcher, noticed that her patients were tired despite getting their recommended eight hours of sleep, she began looking for answers beyond the obvious.

“We have a very limited view of what rest is. We think of rest as the cessation of activity – just stopping. But it’s actually practising restorative activities,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

Rest is a responsibility for the daytime as well as nighttime. Ms Dalton-Smith found that workers tend to think too long term when it comes to sleep. They defer to upcoming chunks of rest to justify exhausting work.

“We often engage in unhealthy, busy work habits and justify it by saying, ‘I’ll rest on the weekend,’” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

Research has largely debunked the idea of “sleep banking” as the benefits of banking our sleep tend to dissipate within a day or so. Sleep capital runs out fast and requires consistent topping up.

Similarly, in the research cited by HRM, the bi-annual holiday is no remedy to an exhausting work schedule.

By thinking shorter term, workers should look to implement tricks to maintain energy levels throughout the day.

“We need to be much more intentional about resting during the day in small ways,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

“What I’m finding is that the people who are most productive are the ones who know how to rest in the middle of all their work. They’re pouring [energy] back into the places they’re taking it out from as they go. They’re not trying to push through to the end of the day [or week].”

According to Dr Dalton-Smith, there are seven types of rest. Each of which plays a role in determining our energy levels and work habits.

1. Physical rest

This refers to the most obvious form of rest: shut-eye. The push for longer nightly sleep has taken centre stage in the recent “sleep revolution”, as, according to Sleep Education, 38 per cent of Australians are not getting enough quality sleep.

This is particularly significant when considering that undersleeping can lead to an increased risk of major health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease and even death.

2. Sensory rest

This type of rest refers to the kind we need away from the overstimulation offered by screens. Approximately 13.8 per cent of Australian adults wake up two to three times per night to use technology. A further 12.7 per cent lose sleep due to technology use once a week.

3. Mental rest

Mental overstimulation can significantly reduce your ability to get quality sleep.

“When you lay down at night, if your head has multiple tabs open, you’re thinking and processing all of these different things [and] running background mental functioning, so it could be very difficult to get to a quiet, cerebral space where you can get into deeper REM sleep,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

4. Emotional rest

Certain employees are likely to be more emotionally drained than others. For instance, in 2023, over two-thirds of US nurses felt emotionally drained.

Just as we require rest time away from our phones, workers need to find time away from the emotional demands of their work.

“Emotional labour is often part of the job. It’s what you’re getting paid for. So, it’s often not about how to get rid of it but how to manage it,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

5. Creative rest

This kind of rest is unique in that it is more active than passive. It means finding time for activities that creatively fulfil us.

Creativity can be a renewable energy source. According to poet Maya Angelou, “the more you use it, the more you have.”

Indeed, research shows that it can heighten our levels of energy, enthusiasm and excitement.

6. Social rest

According to Dr Dalton-Smith, social rest requires spending more time around those who energise you and less with those who drain you.

“These are usually your adult friends because they’re not asking a lot of you. The people who are negatively pulling from you could be your family, your kids or spouse, parents, clients, colleagues, managers,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

7. Spiritual rest

This type of rest might be the most difficult to understand. According to Dr Dalton-Smith, it can be, but is not necessarily, faith-based.

“This is the rest we feel when we’re appreciated and feel as if we belong to something bigger than ourselves,” said Dr Dalton-Smith.

While this might be a harder sell, modern science is finding ways to understand spirituality in an objective sense, meaning that moments of spiritual connection could be purposefully fostered as a form of rest.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.