11/06/2014 10:03 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Why Smartphone Breaks at Work Aren't Such a Bad Idea

Natalie Young via Getty Images

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 down 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 resource department should start advocating for iPhone time. Kansas State University notes that playing on your smartphone is similar to other types of microbreaks, like getting coffee, walking around or talking with coworkers. Like most things in life, it's all about balance, right?

"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 hour-long 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 so intently on work for hours on end, non-stop. We need mental as well as physical breaks.

The positive effect of microbreaks show that companies don't necessarily need a Google-sized budget for foosball tables, cushy sofas and coconut water to keep employees happy. Some extra cell phone chargers might not hurt though. After all, millennial workers are pretty pro-gadget, although information overload can be problematic.

Now excuse us, while we go check iMessage.

Anne Miller is an OZY contributor based in New York City. Vignesh Ramachandran is a tech buff and journalist in San Francisco. They're both on Twitter @annemillermedia and @VigneshR.