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Dwarves would occasionally go on break. Breaks lasted about 14 days and dwarves tended to take breaks every few months. Dwarves on break would behave as though they were jobless, and would wander between their bedrooms and public meeting places. There was no way to force a dwarf to work while on break, therefore the best use of this time was reducing the stress of said dwarf. A high quality dining room, statuary, zoo, or meeting area would help in this respect. If a dwarf could be confined there by burrows, a danger room could still be used while the dwarf was on break, making this another productive use of the time spent on break.
Breaks probably did you more bad than good. Idling dwarves were never a good thing, as they did no work, only built social skills, and tended to build friendships which would make them happier at the moment but could lead to temper tantrums later on if someone really well-liked passed away. On the other hand, they did give dwarves time to examine furniture and lower their stress.
Only civilians could properly be on break: members of the militia would interrupt a break to follow military orders; they would go back to their break if relieved from duty. No other duties seemed to override breaks - e.g., doctors would remain on break even if their spouse was dying in the hospital.
Disciplined dwarves were theorized to take either shorter or less frequent breaks.
Dwarves no longer go on breaks as of version 0.42.01, with them being replaced by the need system.