Short Breaks Will Kill You


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Quantitative or Qualitative Analysis?

An apocryphal tale…

A statistician working for a large organisation was asked to explain why sick pay was increasing.  The business had an ageing workforce and sickness levels were rising.  He gathered lots of data on lots of things:

  • Working patterns
  • Demographics
  • Employment related illnesses
  • Commuting times
  • Office locations… 

The list went on and on.  Like all good statisticians he liked data. 

Once he had the data he started to analyse it, looking for patterns, trying to extract the signal from the noise.  He ran single factor investigations, multivariate regressions, random forests and clustering algorithms… If he had the data and the computing power he ran the analysis, leaving no stone unturned.  

Eventually he came across a startling relationship.  The more breaks an employee had during the day the more likely they were to be sick and have long periods off work later in their career.  The statistics were compelling and completely against the conventional wisdom  that short regular breaks reduce stress and improve productivity

The statistician produced graphs. He presented powerpoint packs. He enlisted executive sponsorship. He was unstoppable. A new H.R. policy was written and prepared for launch.  Work breaks would be minimised during the day.  It was a win win.  Not only would this improve productivity, it would also improve employee health and wellness.

The policy was about to be launched when an occupational nurse pointed out a small flaw in the analysis.  She had spent her career talking to sick members of staff and was convinced that short breaks were a good thing for concentration and wellbeing.  Provided of course you didn’t use them to nip outside for a smoke.

The breaks weren’t making staff sick.  The cigarettes were.

Two types of analysis

1. Quantitative analysis

The sort of research beloved by the numerate and management consultants.  It is hard and fact based, requires lots of data and will point you in the right direction.  If you have the data, you can do all the analysis you want from the safety of your office.

Best of all, quantitative analysis looks beautifully strategic.  It will produce lots of charts that lull people in boardrooms into a sense of knowing what is going on.

Unfortunately quantitative analysis is wide and shallow.  Quantitative analysis will tell you where to look, but it won’t tell you what is going on.

2. Qualitative analysis

The sort of research beloved by humanities students and people who wear brown sandals.  It is soft and observation based.  To carry out qualitative research you have to leave the comfort of your office and talk to people and watch what they do.  Qualitative research is expensive and takes time.  It is easy to dismiss because it isn’t statistically valid and doesn’t show you anything like the whole picture.

Qualitative analysis is deep but narrow, but it is the best way to really understand what is going on, assuming you are looking in the right place.

Which is the more powerful?

Quantitative analysis will tell you that there is a relationship between short breaks and early deaths.  Qualitative analysis will tell you that it is the cigarettes, not the breaks, that are killing your workforce.

If you want to understand what is going on you need to do both. Worth remembering next time somebody sparkly is wowing you with their beautiful charts.

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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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