More Productive Workers? Get Them to Stop Working!

6 strategies to help employees recover and refuel.

What do Facebook, Google, and Bain & Company have in common? They all are recognized as Best Places to Work in 2017 by Glassdoor, and they all offer their employees opportunities to recover from work. We don’t think this is a coincidence. In fact, one of the most important things organizations can do to boost productivity is actually to get their employees to stop working.

Thanks to modern technology, many employees work around the clock. One study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that, on average, professionals, managers, and executives are connected to their work 72 hours a week. While it might seem like these extended hours result in a more productive workforce, this is not the case. In fact, the inability to “switch off” has been linked to lower productivity and higher health risks.

Human beings aren’t meant to work continuously for lengthy periods of time without rest. We function best cyclically, shifting between periods of work followed by rest. Modern tools, such as smartphones, that extend the workday interrupt that natural cycle, compromising effectiveness. Without sufficient downtime, productivity declines, no matter how much effort is expended.

Overworked employees aren’t a benefit; they are a cost. It is estimated that the cost of lost productivity due to lack of sleep alone is approximately $63 billion per year. Employees who are overworked are likely to be unfocused and poor at making decisions. An overworked employee is also more likely to make mistakes that have to be fixed afterward, creating even more work by him or herself, or another employee.

Helping employees learn how to recover from their work can improve a company’s return on investment (ROI). Here are some strategies used by today’s top companies to help employees recover and refuel:

  1. Encourage disconnecting from work. While disconnecting from work used to happen naturally at the end of the workday, today’s workers need help disconnecting from the 24/7 work culture. Leaders can do this by letting employees know they are not expected to check e-mails after work hours. Companies such as Volkswagen actually have shut down servers so employees can’t receive e-mails off-shift. Financial investment agency Motley Fool encourages disconnection by entering all its employees into a monthly raffle to win a two-week vacation, plus $1,500—if they vacation within the month and have no contact with work during their time off. This policy normalizes disconnection, as employees must be prepared to disconnect—and have their colleagues disconnect—at any time.
  2. Let people sleep. Helping employees get adequate sleep is a straightforward way to reduce the damage incurred by overwork. Leaders can cultivate a culture in which getting adequate sleep is seen as part of workplace professionalism. HR professionals can encourage this cultural shift by explaining that exhausted employees make mistakes and bad decisions, and are less able to adapt to changes, and that sleeplessness is linked to serious health issues, such as heart disease and strokes. Companies such as Google have established a pro-napping culture, encouraging employees to literally sleep on the job (and even providing nap pods) if they need to rest during business hours.
  3. Create opportunities to move. While exercise may seem counterintuitive as a method of fueling rest and recovery, it can do just that. The majority of today’s workforce is sedentary—a lifestyle linked to lower energy and higher health risks. Physical activity can boost energy, burn off stress, and clear people’s minds. Organizations can incorporate movement into the workplace by offering standing desks, walking meetings, showers and changing rooms, free exercise programs, and group fitness challenges. For example, Bain & Company has its own “Bain World Cup,” which brings together employees around the world for an annual three-day soccer tournament.
  4. Introduce contemplative activities. Mounting scientific evidence confirms that contemplative practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga improve mental and physical health. These opportunities to take a “time in,” as referred to by Dr. Dan Sigel from the UCLA School of Medicine, can help workers de-stress, renew focus and attention, and feel refreshed throughout a long workday. HR leaders can provide mindfulness training programs, offer contemplative retreats, and provide online resources for employees to engage in mental wellness practices. Many companies offer such programs, including Facebook, Google, Aetna, and General Mills.
  5. Spark social connections. Humans are social creatures and being able to connect with others on a personal level has been shown to lower stress levels and elevate mood, both of which help with recovery. HR leaders can improve the chances of social connections in the workplace by creating opportunities for employees to interact socially—especially across workgroups. Occasions that allow people to connect on a deeper level (e.g., beyond simple “shop talk”), are particularly useful. Motley Fool has a “professional connector”—a person whose job it is to get to know different people in the organization, and connect them to employees with common interests. The “Bain World Cup” (mentioned above) is another great example of getting people to connect socially, while building trust and teamwork.
  6. Savor and celebrate the positives. Recent findings in the field of positive psychology have shown that positive emotions increase energy, creativity, and resilience—but they also fade more quickly than negative emotions. This, coupled with the fact that exhaustion tends to exacerbate negativity, makes a long-hours work culture a breeding ground for pessimism. To counteract this, leaders should look for ways to help their employees celebrate and soak in the positives. Some ways to do this include having awards ceremonies or parties to celebrate good news or creating positivity initiatives that leverage kindness and altruism. Warby Parker, an online prescription glasses company, offers many mood-boosters—such as “photo mash-ups” (funny mash-ups of employee headshots), a crowdsourced office playlist, and a tradition of bursting into random, spontaneous applause, all of which contribute to a positive workplace culture.

Many recovery initiatives reflect more than one strategy. For example, a company-wide party might include aspects of positivity, social connection, and physical exercise. Learning and Development professionals should consider what types of initiatives might work best within their culture.

Research indicates that helping employees learn how to recover from work is arguably the most important learning and development initiative a company can undertake. After all, no other initiatives matter if workers are too drained to do their jobs.

Article Author:
Cathleen Clerkin, Ph.D., Member, Senior Research Faculty; Marian Ruderman, Ph.D., Director, Research Horizons, and Senior Fellow; and Jennifer Deal, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)


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