As I write this, I’m preparing to head out on vacation with my husband. We’re taking a road trip to Mendocino, and I can’t wait to see the art galleries, commune with the majestic redwood trees and walk through the quaint town. It would be easy to fit my laptop into the trunk alongside my weekender and books to read, but I won’t. When I log off the evening before my vacation starts, I will stay logged off for a full week. Unfortunately, mine is an unusual experience for American knowledge workers, but it shouldn’t be.
Hardworking is not the same as always working.
If your employees operated heavy machinery or worked in potentially dangerous conditions, you’d adhere to rigorous policies, protections and regulations to ensure everyone stay focused and safe. But there are few comparable guidelines for knowledge workers. If your team is regularly clocking 10, 11 or 12-hour days, how do you get them to protect their machinery - their brains? How do you get them to pull back, rest and recharge?
Maybe you wonder why you’d want to do such a thing. A hardworking team is a great team, right? Well, that depends. If by hardworking you mean always working, then the answer is no.
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In the Harvard Business Review article “ The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and Companies,” writer Sarah Green Carmichael cites two studies to back this up. The first, out of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, showed that managers couldn’t spot the difference between employees who were actually working 16-hour days and those who were merely claiming to. And the second, from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found overwork leads to health problems for employees and rising costs for businesses due to absenteeism, staff churn and higher health insurance premiums.
We know staff burnout is expensive. It’s time we acknowledge we can fix this.
Here's a five-step plan for ending work martyrdom.
Whether employees are working nights, weekends or vacations because they think they should or because they believe they must, changing that behavior has to come from the top. Business owners and leaders must first acknowledge their own work can wait, and then they’ll be able to convincingly say to an employee, “your work can wait, too.”
Here are five ways I’ve learned to do that in the past nine months, since I joined Basecamp, where this way of work is the norm:
- Break your goals into defined time periods. Our teams work in six-week cycles. Before the start of each cycle, I determine what needs to get done and map my work to fit in.
- Block off daily time for specific projects. Do everything you can to move forward on a particular focus area during that protected time before you turn your attention elsewhere.
- Establish work hours. If you tell your team you won’t check email after 6 p.m., don’t. That’s harder to do than to say, so start small. Follow through one night per week, prove to yourself it can be done without catastrophe, and then expand this practice to the rest of your week.
- Stay present in the moment. If you respond to emails and texts while sitting in a meeting, you’re not really being productive. Your divided attention works against you and your teams. Do one thing at a time, and stay mindful about that one thing.
- Prioritize. Something on your to-do list right now is probably not a real priority. Ask yourself which tasks can wait.
Teams are more productive when they feel empowered to say, “Yes, this work can wait - it can wait until tomorrow, it can wait until Monday, it can wait until I get back from vacation.” Making this the norm, however, won’t happen until more founders and executives model work-can-wait behavior themselves.