Overworking is overrated and unhealthy. Why so hard to respect work-life balance?

From today’s Washington Post:

Why does our society perpetuate the idea that people must be constantly working in order to be worthy of respect?

I get tired of the way our culture fetishizes overworking. People contribute to this by competing over who has worked the hardest, longest hours as though overworking makes you a better person. This attitude can lead to a feeling of shame for taking a day off for being sick, tired, or needing a mental health day. In our very public, social media sharing society it can feel like we need to constantly “prove” how hard we are working to the watching world.

Instead, we should encourage the people around us to work hard for their goals, but also encourage them to remember to take breaks, relax and enjoy life. Overdoing anything is never healthy, and we should aim to be better at balancing work and play in our culture.

Read the complete article here.

People Want 3 Things from Work, But Most Firms Are Built Around Only One

From today’s Harvard Business Review:

Strike up a conversation about work values, and it won’t be long before someone brings up a pyramid — a famous psychologist’s best-known theory. Abraham Maslow’s big idea was that we all have a hierarchy of needs: once our basic physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, we seek love and belongingness, then self-esteem and prestige, and finally self-actualization. But that pyramid was built more than half a century ago, and psychologists have recently concluded that it’s in need of renovation.

When you review the evidence from the past few decades of social science, it’s hard to argue with Maslow’s starting point. If your basic needs aren’t met, it’s hard to focus on anything else. If you have a job that doesn’t pay enough, and you’re up all night worrying about survival, chances are you won’t spend much time dwelling on self-actualization.

But Maslow built his pyramid at the dawn of the human relations movement, when so many workplaces in the manufacturing economy didn’t have basic physiological and safety needs covered. Today more companies are operating in knowledge and service economies. They’re not just fulfilling basic needs; they’re aiming to fulfill every need, providing conveniences like meals and gyms, and competing to be the best places to work (from 1984 through 2011, those that won outperformed their peers on stock returns by 2.3% to 3.8% per year). In those environments, survival isn’t in question.

And once you get past that layer of the pyramid, the rest of it falls apart. People don’t need to be loved before they strive for prestige and achievement. And they don’t wait for those needs to be fulfilled before pursuing personal growth and self-expression.

If Maslow were designing his pyramid from scratch today to explain what motivates people at work, beyond the basics, what would it look like? That’s a question we set out to answer at Facebook, in collaboration with our people analytics team.

We survey our workforce twice a year, asking what employees value most. After examining hundreds of thousands of answers over and over again, we identified three big buckets of motivators: career, community, and cause.

Career is about work: having a job that provides autonomy, allows you to use your strengths, and promotes your learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation.

Community is about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.

Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a source of pride.

These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract – the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

Read the complete article here.

End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email

From yesterday’s NYT “Opinion” by Clive Thompson:

This Labor Day weekend, odds are you’ll peek at your work email on your “day off” — and then feel guilty about it.

You might envy the serene workers at Daimler, the German automaker. On vacations, employees can set their corporate email to “holiday mode.” Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an alternate, on-call staff person. Then poof, the incoming email is deleted — so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence. “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a Daimler spokesman told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”

Limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.

White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.

So as a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the chokehold of after-hours email is a laudable goal.

But it also appears that, from a corporate standpoint, the sky won’t fall. The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.

At the Toronto office of Edelman, the global public relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule. Employees are strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Sure, they can check email if they want — but they’re not to send it to colleagues. It’s an acknowledgment that the only way to really reduce email is to persuade colleagues not to reflexively write every time they have the tiniest question.

Those who do are scolded. “You have to stick to it,” Lisa Kimmel, the general manager of the office, told me. “When we tell prospective employees about it, their eyes light up.”

Even start-ups are experimenting with email limits. Book Riot, a website for book lovers, has eight full-time employees who mostly work remotely, in different time zones, on often hectic schedules. They all agree: Email someone whenever you want, but don’t expect a reply until the recipient is back in the office.

“It’s understood that if someone has a crazy idea at 3 a.m. and sends it, that’s their problem that it’s 3 a.m. — you respond when you want,” Rebecca Schinsky, the site’s director of content, told me. At the Boston Consulting Group, when a team of stressed-out consultants began organizing “predictable time off” — no-messaging zones during their off time — their total work hours dropped by 11 percent, yet the same amount of work was accomplished.

Why would less email mean better productivity? Because, as Ms. Deal found in her research, endless email is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.

When employees shoot out a fusillade of miniature questions via email, or “cc” every team member about each niggling little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision on their own. Often, Ms. Deal found, they’re worried about getting in trouble or downsized if they mess up.

In contrast, when employees are actually empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own. They also start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly, so they don’t metastasize into email threads the length of “War and Peace.”

This is basic behavioral economics. When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable — and employees become more mindful of how and when they write.

Granted, not all late-night email is bad. As Ms. Deal found, employees don’t like being forced to reply at 1 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility of being able to shift some work to the evening if they choose. And they don’t mind dealing with genuine work crises that crop up during leisure hours. At Edelman in Toronto, employees try not to bug each other in the evenings — but if a client emails with a time-sensitive issue, they’ll respond.

These changes can’t happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly emails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do email at midnight.”) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate email box for your personal messages. You can’t ignore your work inbox if that’s also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.

But it’s worth it. More than a century ago, blue-collar workers fought for a limited workday with an activist anthem: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” It’s a heritage that, this Labor Day, we need to restore.

Editorial: “Why You Hate Work”

From NYT “SundayReview” by TONY SCHWARTZ and CHRISTINE PORAT:

THE way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.

Increasingly, this experience is common not just to middle managers, but also to top executives.

Our company, The Energy Project, works with organizations and their leaders to improve employee engagement and more sustainable performance. A little over a year ago, Luke Kissam, the chief executive of Albemarle, a multibillion-dollar chemical company, sought out one of us, Tony, as a coach to help him deal with the sense that his life was increasingly overwhelming. “I just felt that no matter what I was doing, I was always getting pulled somewhere else,” he explained. “It seemed like I was always cheating someone — my company, my family, myself. I couldn’t truly focus on anything.”

Mr. Kissam is not alone. Srinivasan S. Pillay, a psychiatrist and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School who studies burnout, recently surveyed a random sample of 72 senior leaders and found that nearly all of them reported at least some signs of burnout and that all of them noted at least one cause of burnout at work.

More broadly, just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Read the entire article here.

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project, a consulting firm. Christine Porath is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a consultant to The Energy Project.