The Old Rules are dead, long live the new rules. Business magazine and website FastCompany recently highlighted how work is slowly encroaching into the off-hours of employees’ time. No longer can someone simply work 9-to-5 and maintain the illusion that work and life are separate, or find time to truly break away. While on vacation, 44% of people check their work messages, and 34% of people end up working one weekend day per week. But should your employees really be this focused on their work?
While at Work
Everyone imagines the ideal employee as synonymous with the hard worker, the person who puts in long hours and gets their work done no matter what and meets deadlines after working consecutive all-nighters. The reality is that most people don’t work that way, and putting in more hours doesn’t lead to more prolific or creative employees. For example, 64% of employees visit non-work websites during their workday. This tells us that while most managers think their workers are plugging away at all of their projects for eight straight hours every day, most of them are taking frequent breaks from their work.
The good news is that this isn’t a bad thing. While it may seem counterintuitive to say working less gets more done, the idea holds water. Studies have found that brief diversions improve an employee’s focus, leading to more productive work days. Taking breaks every few hours keeps people from getting bored with what they’re doing, so when they come back to their work, they can focus more readily on the task at hand.
During the Week
Continuing with our example of the idealized overworked employee, the origins of this caricature come from a sort of value we attribute to people who work more. Writing for The Atlantic, Cody Delistraty (@Delistraty) talks about how some people might work longer hours because it makes them feel more important:
"Perhaps the reason people overwork even when it is not for 'reward, punishment, or obligation' is because it holds great social cachet. Busyness implies hard work, which implies good character, a strong education, and either present or future affluence. The phrase, “I can’t, I’m busy,” sends a signal that you’re not just a homme sérieux, but an important one at that."
See what Cody Delistrary, writer from The Atlantic, has to say about the phrase, "I can't, I'm busy."
When it comes to results, however, the numbers tell a different story. Countries with the longest hours, like Japan, tend to have the lowest productivity rates. Countries that work less, like Denmark, tend to be more productive and happier. As the article the idea that taking longer to get something done means you’re less efficient as a worker is particularly striking, because it changes how we see the nature of work, to some degree.
Throughout the Year
Myths die hard, however, and it’s difficult to overcome the idea that working and being more available are good for business, which is why 26% of employees feel guilty using all of the vacation time their companies give them. This is mostly due to cell phones and email allowing employees to be at a company’s disposal at any time. These technologies are immensely helpful when employees go on company trips and in times of crises, because it allows everyone to be on the same page even when someone isn’t there.
26% of employees feel guilty for using all of their vacation time.
But beyond these special circumstances, making your employees feel like they’re always on the clock isn’t a good thing. After a vacation, 67% of employees feel more productive once they get back to work. Companies shouldn’t create an atmosphere where working hours are idolized, and vacations are seen as guilty pleasures. They should instead encourage employees to take them, since they’ll come back and produce better work. Feeling like you’re “on call” even while you’re away diminishes the feeling of being on vacation and reduces the amount of rest and time away you’ll have, leading to a smaller burst of productivity when you come back.
It might still seem paradoxical to say, but if you want higher employee performance, you have to make employees work less. It’s hard overcoming the myths about our work culture, but not only are they harmful for productivity, they’re harmful to the employees themselves. Keeping your employees from working too hard will ultimately lead to more productive, happier, and longer-lasting employees.
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As the head of a department in the midst of a sustained period of rapid growth, Sara has spent hundreds of hours interviewing, hiring, onboarding and assessing employees and candidates. She is passionate about sharing the best practices she has learned from both successes and failures in talent acquisition and management.