What happens when well-being work interventions backfire?

I learned about a great company that has found a niche destroying one of the great evils of organizational life and accidentally, creating a potentially more insidious problem.

BambooHR — is an online software company that helps small businesses manage employees without the time suck of a crap load of people who each possess an iota of information that never get together.

From human resource management to payroll and benefits, the typical entrepreneur devotes up to 40% of their day on these necessary evils. BambooHR outsources these tasks to insanity free software. But none of this is of much interest to me. What interests me is their antiworkaholic policy. Employees have received warnings that they are working too many hours and if they continue, punishments might occur. I wish I was kidding but some employees have actually been fired.

This policy/rule/law is designed to bring a sense of work-life integration to their employees. Those who work at BambooHR are NOT ALLOWED to work more than 40 hours/week. The road to this policy is paved with good intentions:

  • employees get to spend more time with family
  • employees can be fully present during leisure time knowing that work-related texts are “illegal” after hours
  • managers work with employees to figure out the barriers to completing tasks in a timely manner
  • employees have more energy when starting the workday and less likely to experience a late afternoon dip in productivity and motivation

But here is the problem — what if you love what you do? Let’s rewind the clock 27 years to when Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989) observed employees in three different jobs (management, clerical, and blue-collar) when at work and play. These researchers asked a seemingly obvious question — do adults experience a greater sense of flow (a sense of being “in the zone”) when they get out of work? Contrary to expectations, the experience of flow occurred 3 times as often when at work. Adults experienced a sense of flow 54% of the time at work and only 17% of the time during off-hour, leisure.

Most people are unaware of how often they enjoy work — feeling a sense of control during a long period of uninterrupted concentration where immediate feedback is obtained and the challenge being confronted is greater than the skills being brought to the table. Here is how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this sense of flow:

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.

What kind of workplace would want to limit an employee’s experience of this exalted state of mind? This question gets to the unintended, dark consequences of BambooHR’s antiworkaholic policy. Some people love to code software and experience profound flow when solving problems, creating new ideas, and sharing these ideas with others who share their mission to help small businesses. It must be painful to have to quit in the midst of a flow state because the maximum number of weekly hours is up. There is plenty of research on the psychological and productivity toll of resumption lags — when someone has their work interrupted and finds it difficult to resume and regain their mojo.

There is always a problem in assuming that everyone in an organization is homogenous. Everyone views the work as a job or career, where it might be a source of money or achievement but not nearly as meaningful as time spent on sports, video games, hiking, or socializing. Some people find a profound sense of meaning in their work and even refer to it as a purpose in life.

My advice for those well-intended business leaders interested in the well-being of their employees: appreciate individual differences. Do not assume that everyone has the same personality, interests, and motivation behind what they do.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. For more: toddkashdan.com

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