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Are you crushing it? Do you work on the weekends? Do you live and breathe hustle? Does raw productivity seep from your pores? Are you proud of your regime where you take a weekend morning away from your family and smash your emails? Will you sleep when you’re dead?
Performative productivity is a particularly pernicious strain of counterproductive machismo whose main purpose is to demonstrate that you’re at work, rather than to actually get anything done. It’s much more about who’s watching than what you’re working on; we’ve accidentally built a culture that values hollow demonstrations of effort more than actually being productive. It’s an easy metric for short-sighted managers: even if nobody’s officially measuring who’s spending long hours at the office, it’s definitely noticed. And nobody ever got a promotion for slacking off, right?
That’s a myth. It turns out that people who do take time off are more likely to get a raise (although whether this is correlation or causation is not completely clear). But because we generally assume that people who take downtime are not as productive, anyone not at the top of their professional hierarchy is trapped into this perverse work theater. It destroys our relationships, it destroys our health, and — ironically, but not surprisingly — it stifles our creativity and performance at work. As Harvard Business Review pointed out:
One experiment conducted at BCG, for example, found that forcing employees to take days, nights, or extended periods of time off actually increased productivity. And other studies show that brief periods of downtime, like afternoon naps, can restore focus and energy.
There’s a whole piece to be written on how psychotic work environments have to be for employees to be forced to take a night off — but I’ll abstain for now. Still, contrast this attitude with France, where a law went into effect last year that protects employee time by outlawing bosses from emailing them after hours.
As one French Member of Parliament put it at the time, problems with work-life balance are exacerbated by technology:
“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
Checking email less often reduces stress. One can easily extrapolate to other kinds of notifications: Slack channels, instant messages, SMS, and so on. It’s all a constant barrage of nagging that doesn’t allow you to ever truly leave the office. In turn, workplace stress adds up to over $190 billion in US employer healthcare costs, as well as time off and real lost productivity. Similar findings led to the French law having broad support among employees and employers alike.
This workplace stress also contributes to over 120,000 deaths a year in the US alone. True downtime is biologically necessary, and our current models are nowhere near enough:
Corporate America may never sanction working only four hours a day, but research suggests that to maximize productivity we should reform the current model of consecutive 40-hour workweeks separated only by two-day weekends and sometimes interrupted by short vacations. […] Instead of limiting people to a single week-long vacation each year or a few three-day vacations here and there, companies should also allow their employees to take a day or two off during the workweek and encourage workers to banish all work-related tasks from their evenings.
It’s not normal. Eight years into working in America, I’m still getting used to the macho culture around vacations. I had previously lived in a country where 28 days per year is the minimum that employers can legally provide; taking time off is just considered a part of life. The US is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee any vacation at all (the others are Tonga, Palau, Nauru, Micronesia, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands). It’s telling that American workers often respond to this simple fact with disbelief. How does anything get done?! Well, it turns out that a lot gets done when people aren’t burned out or chained to their desks.
Because of America’s endemic culture of employment abuse, it’s not enough to intellectually know that people need more downtime during the day, that they should be free to enjoy their lives after work, or that they should have more regular time off. The only way to enforce these kinds of behaviors is to set new cultural norms inside an organization, and create systems of rules to hold people to account. Intention is good, but must be backed up with action.
Here are some simple rules, some derived from workplaces in other countries, that could improve American office life.
- Take a real lunch hour. Don’t eat at your desk; don’t have work conversations; don’t check email, Slack, or social media. A break acts as meditative time to recharge, so you can be more productive later. Multitasking is bad for us. Physically leave the room to make it impossible for someone to draw you back into work.
- Take short breaks and get a change of scenery. In addition to a real lunch hour, take breaks in the morning and afternoon to recharge. Go outside if you can.
- Go home. Don’t work extra-long hours. Research shows that talented experts in fields like music and writing don’t practice for more than four hours a day, to avoid burnout. Every additional hour provides diminishing returns. There’s nothing wrong with a 9–5 workday, although other models may be better. But avoid the 8–7 (or even longer).
- Rotate being on call — and automate as much as possible. In many industries, like technology, someone has to be “on call” to look out for after-hours issues. It’s easy and tempting for organizations to make everyone on call all the time, or to make it someone’s full-time job. Instead, as much as possible, create a rotating schedule so that most people can be free of after hours notifications most of the time. When they are on call, use automatic tooling to minimize the time they need to be spending checking for updates. And once someone is done being on call, make sure they have a real break.
- Always know when your next vacation is. Just taken a vacation? Great! When’s your next one? Institutionally asking this question socializes the idea that vacations are productive and okay to take. Some of the best places I’ve ever worked have done this.
- Employers: provide Time Off In Lieu (or pay for overtime). In many countries, if you work for a larger company, overtime must be paid for. To avoid this, employers can provide Time Off In Lieu: for every hour worked after hours, employees gain an hour of vacation to be used whenever is convenient for them. If you travel for work on a weekend day, for example, you could take a day of vacation another time. Employees use a “TOIL bank” to keep track of their accrued hours.
- Trust. Don’t try and fill your direct reports’ time or micromanage the tasks they’re working on (which often manifests as adding more to their workload). Trust that they’re self-managing.
- Track and impose norms with structure. Except when paired with the vacation rule above, “unlimited vacation” is often a synonym for “no vacation”. And I’ve worked in many places where people felt they had to come into the office — or work remotely —when they were down with a cold. Coming in runs the risk of infecting more people; working remotely runs the risk of prolonging your illness. Not taking vacation reduces the quality of your work and makes you more likely to get sick. Perhaps counter-intuitively, creating rules about these things gives employees more freedom to take the time they need.
- Take responsibility for each other’s well being. Not just your own. Help create a culture of health and rest, and watch out for people who look like they’re in danger of burning out. Build a team that has each other’s backs.
With perhaps the exception of TOIL, I don’t think any of the above rules should be at all controversial. Yet, these ideas seem to be surprisingly rarely implemented, to everybody’s detriment.
In a world where we’re working longer hours for more years, it’s time we all helped build a more compassionate working culture. And where that’s not possible organically, it’s perhaps time to consider returning to the ideas that brought us the 40 hour workweek and the weekend to begin with. Worker productivity drives every business, and the economy of every country; workers deserve to live well while doing it. There’s no glory in burning yourself out, and certainly none in allowing someone else to do it to you.