Regular readers of my column will know that I'm a big fan of breaks. And not just because I love an opportunity to look at a cute cat picture as much as the next girl. Study after study and expert after expert agree that taking regular, short breaks to refresh and recharge is good for not only your sanity but also your performance and productivity.

But even the biggest booster of breaks in the world might be shocked by a new Wharton study showing that, in some contexts, failing to step away often enough can actually be lethal.

Analyzing data on 4,157 caregivers working at 35 different hospitals, the research team behind the results examined the relationship between busyness-induced exhaustion and compliance with standard hand-washing protocols. The results: From the beginning of a shift to the end, compliance rates dropped 8.7 percent. Breaks--the longer the better--helped reset rates back to the level they reach when people are at their freshest toward the beginning of a shift.

An 8.7 percent decrease might not sound like a lot, but it is. "If hand hygiene compliance rates increased by 8.7 percentage points across the board during a typical work shift, this could potentially eliminate as many as 1.2 million infections per year, save up to $25 billion, and prevent up to 70,000 unnecessary deaths in the United States," reports Knowledge@Wharton. Not enough breaks, in other words, probably contributes to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in America every year.

And If You Don't Work in a Hospital?

If you work in a hospital, you should probably stop reading right now (so you can go take a break and wash your hands), but what about the rest of us? Is this research applicable only to the medical professionals responsible for patients' lives?

Nope, the article concludes. While your and your team's lack of breaks is hopefully never fatal, it probably does affect your performance. For hospital caregivers, hand-washing is a "secondary task," something that, while important, can be ignored short-term in high stress moments. Your work no doubt has secondary tasks too, such as dotting your ethical i's, keeping track of communications and project status updates, and giving that report or proposal a final design polish. And like a harried nurse, you're more likely to let these secondary tasks fall by the wayside if you take fewer breaks.

Managers "should be aware that employees may attend to vital secondary tasks less as their work shifts wear on," concludes study co-author Hengchen Dai, adding that "reminding employees of vital secondary tasks may be particularly effective, or need to be made particularly salient, as a work shift approaches its conclusion."

Or, instead of nagging employees more near the end of their workdays, you could just make sure everyone takes an adequate number of breaks so small-but-vital things don't fall through the cracks.