The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off From Work

Recently, on an airplane, I sat next to a young man who appeared to be masquerading as an adult. His face was teen-smooth yet he wore a suit, like a kid playing the dad in a middleschool play. He initiated the awkward, kiss-close chitchat of the airplane companion with a line I hadn’t heard before: “So — what keeps you busy?” It was, he explained, his favored icebreaker, a Millennial alternative to the uncool, old-fashioned “What do you do?”

He was a lawyer from the car-sharing service Uber and the oldest guy in his office. “I just turned thirty,” he told me cheerfully. As he described his workplace, with pride and affection, a picture emerged: open concept, filled with twentysomethings who worked deep into the night, every night. I mentally embellished with Ping-Pong tables and wandering Labradoodles and clear-glass refrigerators stuffed with Red Bull. “So — what do you do on the weekend?” I asked, trying out my own new line. He informed me, puffing with pride, that in his life, there were no weekends. Work kept him busy.

Clearly, for this guy, busy-ness was a status symbol, and weekends an anathema to success. But it’s not just cheerful millennials who are losing their weekends. A middle-aged friend who’s a very successful journalist and novelist describes being on high alert at all times, waiting for a story to break, to see if he’ll be called in for a hit of radio or TV punditry. He admits that he almost never says no to work when it’s offered, so panicked is he that he might never be wanted again. During a hard-earned holiday in Belize recently with his son, he had to return to the hotel to accept a surprise assignment. Nurturing his brand — even a high-profile one — doesn’t stop on Fridays. “The gig economy killed the weekend,” he says.

At what point do we declare this way of living a public health issue?

Here’s a short list of the very real effects of being perpetually “on.” Our bodies literally release stress hormones when the Inbox pings. Too much time on our devices means we lose the ability to focus. Working long hours brings weight gain and increases anxiety levels. The risk of stroke among employees who work fifty-five or more hours per week is 33 percent higher than those with a thirty-five- to forty-hour week.

Losing free time usually means losing sleep. The kind of deep, almost spiritual sleep that restores (let’s call it “weekend sleep”) is becoming rare. Most of us are sleeping less, and more poorly, than a decade ago. Forty percent of American adults are considered sleep-deprived, getting less than six hours of sleep per night. The lack of sleep is linked to obesity, lost cognition, even Alzheimer’s and cancer. President Donald Trump brags that he sleeps between ninety minutes and four hours a night, as if this is a sign of virility or a corporate success strategy. But diminished sleep is actually an alarming predictor of erratic behavior.

There is no compelling reason for anyone to work like this. Since the first research on productivity was published in the 1900s, experts have found, over and over, that workers are most productive when working eight hours a day, up to forty hours per week. As social futurist Sara Robinson wrote in an article on AlterNet: “On average, you get no more widgets out of a ten-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days.” There may be some gains in a short-term increase in hours — a couple of weeks of overtime on a big project at sixty to seventy hours per week — but after the second week of working long and late, productivity drops off rapidly.

How did our relationship to work — and, by extension, our relationship to leisure and the weekend — get so messed up? The young Uber lawyer I met on the plane, bragging about his holiday- and weekend-deficit, embodied a particular high-tech hipster attitude that may provide a clue.

The original team of Macintosh designers wore T-shirts that read: “Working 90 hours a week and loving it!” It’s a nerd brag of the first order, yet productivity experts estimate the first Mac might have been completed about a year earlier if they’d worked half as many hours per week instead. But “Working 45 Hours a Week and Loving It!” makes for a meh T-shirt slogan.

The T-shirt comes from Silicon Valley in the mid-1980s, and that may be the petri dish that bred some of our present day misguided attitudes toward work. As many advanced economies have shifted from manufacturing and industrial work to knowledge- based commerce, the way we work has changed, too. Long, rangy days and nights where ideas flow freely across the aforementioned Ping-Pong table is the idealized image of modern work — a snapshot of urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s definition of the much-vaunted “creative class.” It’s a big, baggy category of white-collar work that, says Florida, includes workers “in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.” In this kind of work, output is much less easily measured than in a munitions factory; work is inherently shapeless, with no beginning, middle, or end. Project-driven deadlines aside, if the things being made are ideas, then when do you make enough of them to shut off the lights and go home? And why would you, when it’s Red Bull and office parties at work anyway? Writing online in Al Jazeera America, Sarah Leonard puts it succinctly: “What Silicon Valley has so masterfully done is disguise labor as a lifestyle choice. . . . It’s hard to feel exploited while wearing flipflops, balancing gently on an exercise ball.”

Let’s call this professional mode of melding work and fun “workplay.” Workplay is even manifest in office design, with the rise of communal work spaces in bright candy colors that resemble kindergarten carpet time. At the San Francisco company Livefyre there are alcoves lined with blue felt, big enough for workers to sit together cross-legged. At Evernote, rather than a receptionist, clients might be greeted by a barista with donuts. This may be par for the course in digital, but at a media complex housing a children’s publisher in Toronto, I was surprised to see a slide in the lobby. No one will say donuts and slides aren’t awesome, and a welcome alternative to the sterile veal-fattening cubicles of the 1980s and ’90s. But the endgame of these aesthetics isn’t as cute as the design: it’s to make you forget you’re at work, so you won’t mind staying late, or coming in on Saturday. These super-cool offices are designed to keep you in them.

Katherine Losse was one of the first women hired at Facebook, joining the neophyte company when it was just a group of hungry Harvard dudes in Palo Alto, California. In her memoir The Boy Kings, she writes about spending her first day in customer service scanning the office for Mark Zuckerberg. He was nowhere to be seen. She quickly learned that Zuckerberg worked at night “when he had a home-court advantage over VCs and other businesspeople used to keeping regular daytime hours.” Boy genius Zuckerberg is always at the top of Vanity Fair’s Power Lists, and was worth an estimated $56 billion at the time of writing. His is the start-up success story of the century; he’s the father of a product that has changed wholly how we live and relate to one another. The Facebook success is mythic, yet the work itself looks informal, as Silicon Valley always has in contrast to the buttoned-up, high-finance wage-slave work of yesteryear. As economic power shifts westward from the reputation- scarred corridors of eastern seaboard finance to the sparkly digital world on the Pacific coast, so shifts our way of working toward flip-flops and bouncy balls.

Losse describes a Facebook culture of late nights and weekends at a beach house rented by Zuckerberg, where engineers and less-techie (and lower-paid) staff like her ate, partied, and slept. In those early start-up days, Facebook staff, for the most part, were young and childfree. Our twenties are when many of us don’t mind turning our office-mates into proxy families; a job is still a shiny new object that we don’t want to put down. “When there was nothing else to do, we could always run around the empty office after midnight tinkering with the toys and games the boys had accrued and lolling around on the body-sized bean bags that are Silicon Valley’s furniture of choice,” writes Losse. “In many ways, the atmosphere of our lives that year was like an oversized preschool.” These companies are excellent at offering the perks that make work feel less like work and more like a self-contained world that one would never want to leave. Out is the word “headquarters,” with its Cold War–era connotations; in is the chummy “campus.” Tech campuses may contain gyms, concierge services, dry cleaners, and masseuses. One retired programmer remembers being moved into a condo on the campus of a large gaming company, where he was told the residence was for “artists” — an ego-boosting label that’s flattering enough to get most of us to work a little harder.

We’re a few decades into the rise of superficially antihierarchical, highly social offices. In his 1985 book Brave New Workplace, Robert Howard called these “enchanted workplaces”: jobs that cast a spell over workers. Howard noted that these open, super-fun offices are vulnerable to abuses of power and intrusion into workers’ lives. Thirty years later, digital devices — which bring us so much pleasure — have thickened this sauce of work and play, and the result is work-filled weekends.

If Silicon Valley brought the illusion of nonstop fun to work, it’s also a place known for epic, cruel hours. In 2004, a gamer calling herself “ea_spouse” posted on Live Journal about the insanity of her husband’s job as a programmer at Electronic Arts. He was working six days a week, putting in twelve hours a day, on the game Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. Those were “pre-crunch” hours; in actual “crunch mode” — the time before the product must be brought to completion — he worked seven days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., averaging 87.5 hours per week, with no overtime pay. Occasionally, employees would get a Saturday evening off, starting at 6:30 p.m.

“The stress is taking its toll,” she wrote. “After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend — bad things happen to one’s physical, emotional and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”

So how are a bunch of gamers working on their wizards in dark rooms in California relevant to the rest of us? It’s an extreme version of creative-class overwork, the kind that sucks up our weekends. Here is the machismo of “work hard, play hard” on full display in the enchanted workplace — what’s more enchanting than wizards, people? And that enchantment leaves the door open to long hours. “When we ask people who build games why they do it, the responses are consistent with artists — songwriter, author, painter. They tell us they love it, and they will never stop,” says Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Associationm (IGDA).. “You are dealing with artists that are so passionate about the work. My job is to point out that it’s actually different: we are both an art form and an industry.”

Most of us prefer to feel more like artists than workers — and maybe some of us really are — but that mind-set paves a path to exploitation. And if we believe that work isn’t actually work, we lose the sense that leisure is an altogether different category of existence. Work time — with its dollar value, and transactional nature — is not play time, which is free, in all senses of the word.

The workplaces that are regarded today as the most innovative, admired, and successful are, paradoxically, often described as terrible places to work. They also trade in the conquering of time: Facebook, Huffington Post, Amazon — they never close. As Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook CFO and “lean in” guru, wrote, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone.” The products of these companies are also available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, delivering — sometimes within the hour, possibly by drone — our posts, our books, our news. If they succeed at their mandate, then we forget that it takes time, and human labor, to manufacture these services; every late-night click of a button summons a person up a ladder in a warehouse. They sell us immediacy. They refuse the pause. Why would the workers along the supply chain at these companies be inured to this acceleration, or allowed to rest, or tarry?

With its outsize cultural significance, the Silicon Valley workplay mode seems to have shifted from digital into other spheres, too. The website franchise Huffington Post runs editions across the world, gathering every crumb of news and celebrity flotsam that drifts across the Internet, an inherently panic-inducing proposition that’s reflected in reports of what it’s like to work there. The writers, editors, video producers who churn out the content reportedly turn over fast. Emails fly at all hours, especially from Arianna Huffington, the founder and face of the company, who only stops hitting send between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m., according to some workers. The irony is that Huffington is also a self-styled better living guru, promoting lots of sleep and “digital detox” and offering meditation and yoga rooms to staff. These initiatives were introduced when she herself collapsed in her office from exhaustion, waking in a pool of blood and with a broken cheekbone after logging eighteen-hour days working, and sleeping four to five hours a night.

We trumpet work, work, work as the singular path to happiness and prosperity, not just because the idea of not working feels somehow immoral to Puritan sensibilities, but because free time seems so damned scary.

It’s a dramatic mental shift to imagine a week where free time matters as much as work, one that upends our deeply held, work-first values.

In boundless time, those unopened, sealed internal places can no longer go unexplored. Our sadness and losses might rear themselves. Our unsettled pasts and unanswered questions about the lives we’ve lived might surge forward, like a late-night insomnia session loosed in daylight. Unoccupied time means a confrontation with the self, and it’s scary in there. Many of us don’t want to peek inside the box. We would rather work right past those parts of ourselves that are the most unknown, and possibly the richest.

For the luckiest workers, the relationship to leisure is complicated by the fact that we like our work. We’ve all had those periods of being lost in the myriad satisfactions of the job; we know the thrill of completion and flow. Another ripple effect of the global economy is that much of the drudgery of white-collar work has been eliminated by smart technology, and — if troublingly — farmed out to offshore workers. A certain kind of privileged knowledge worker might argue that we work more because work just isn’t as bad as it used to be. If one is lucky enough to have a job that requires thinking and creating, then working long hours straight through the weekend might not feel like a loss; it might not even feel like work at all. One might even take a certain pride in not having leisure or weekends.

But what if all that work is distorting your view of the world, clouding your perception of what matters, acting a little like . . . brainwashing? Welcome to the “cult of overwork,” which is a no-fun cult, free of sex and drugs. In this particular cult, workers have accepted fifty-, sixty-, eighty-hour workweeks without weekends as status quo, or worse, as a credential of success. But in fact, working less makes you more productive. Overworked and under-rested people are bad employees. They make mistakes. They burn out. You don’t want them operating on your kid, and you probably don’t want to hang out with them because they’re boring. And, most urgently, members of the cult of overwork are missing out on their lives.

So much of today’s labor doesn’t leave marks on our bodies; it breaks our spirits, which is an invisible kind of wearing down. The result is tangible: overwork leads to exhaustion, or even depression and suicide. Maybe we continue on in a kind of Stockholm syndrome state because accepting work’s bottomless infringement is a survival technique, a delusion to get through another leisure-free month, or year. But if your occupation is your preoccupation all the time — every weekend — the risk is the possibility of missing your life; of only doing, and rarely being. Even if you love your work, what’s going on? What is a week too full to allow for forty-eight hours of restoration? What is a life without reprieve?

Real leisure isn’t just diversion, it’s making meaning. A good weekend is alert to beauty. A good weekend embraces purposelessness. A good weekend wanders a million different paths, but always involves slowing down and stepping out of the rushing stream of modern life.

Protecting forty-eight hours in a row in this day and age is a superhero move. It takes courage. But if you can put up your hand and hold off the rush, just for two days, you create space for all kinds of experiences that aren’t about success and acquisition, but about that humanity the Sabbath was put in place to safeguard.

An interesting thing happens when you reclaim your weekend: you reclaim your childlike abandon and sense of possibility. You unearth the self that’s been buried beneath the work. You discover that a well-lived weekend is the gateway to a well-lived life.

Excerpted from THE WEEKED EFFECT: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork by Katrina Onstad.