In May last year, a man in a cage appeared at Liverpool Street Station in London. It was, of course, a publicity stunt – but not, as you might have expected, for Amnesty International. The “prisoner” worked for a law firm, which was promoting itself as a place where the wage slaves funnelling into the City could break free from the culture of targets, long hours and snatched lunches at the desk.
At the time the story appeared, I felt a certain kinship with the man in the cage. I was working as a senior editor at BuzzFeed UK, where we’d just switched to putting out our long reads on Saturdays, with some success. I’d like to say this was driven by analysis of the audience data. But actually, it was because by Friday night, I was so frazzled that the words would start swimming before my eyes. So I ended up finishing the pieces off on Saturdays. And if it meant less time with my wife and baby – well, they’d understand.
In my case, I couldn’t even blame my employer, which was actually pretty good about work-life balance (or rather, work-pub balance). I was the one who’d got trapped on the treadmill, who was pushing myself to pack my days with more and more work. I was not alone. New data from the Office of National Statistics show that since 2011, working hours in the UK have been on the rise, reversing 15 years of decline.
As we know, the main driver of this white-collar workaholism is technology. Work is no longer confined to the office: it is something we are constantly plugged into. Biology plays a role: our brains are hardwired to prize novelty and stimulation, rewarding us with little bursts of dopamine when we give them new and interesting information. New emails, likes and retweets deliver a stream of neural, and social, validation.
THE WORK-HARD-PLAY-HARD ATTITUDE ISN’T JUST BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH AND FAMILY LIFE: IT’S BAD FOR YOUR COMPANY
Many people thrive on high-pressure, high-octane work. Michael Arrington, the abrasive tech investor and founder of the TechCrunch website, summed up the prevailing culture in Silicon Valley in a widely shared piece: “Startups are hard. So work more, cry less, and quit all the whining.” Ryan Avent wrote for this publication about the fulfilment he and others get from living in the fast lane. Being busy is invigorating; it can also give us status, value and purpose.
Yet at the same time, you can – should – keep your foot on the accelerator for only so long. Research led by scientists at University College London, carried mout across three continents, found that working more than 55 hours a week raises your odds of a stroke by a third, in addition to raising the odds of a heart attack. When we work harder, and feel ourselves to be under time pressure, we become worse parents – and worse spouses. A study of air traffic controllers found that the quality of their parenting in the evening could be predicted by the number of planes they had to land during the day: the more they had to cope with at work, the less they wanted to engage with their children on returning home. In 2014, Pannone solicitors, part of the UK law firm Slater & Gordon, reported that workplace pressure was cited as a factor in around half of its divorce cases.
The work-hard-play-less attitude isn’t just bad for your health and family life: it’s bad for your company. Pushing yourself or your employees to put in longer hours, or always to have their phones handy to answer queries, is counter-productive. A 2003 study by the Canadian health service concluded that as working weeks get longer, employees are more likely to suffer from illness and poor concentration, and are generally less productive and innovative. When staff at Boston Consulting Group were forced to limit their hours as part of a trial, their work actually benefited: participants reported more open communication, increased learning and development, and a better product delivered to the client.
The longer the hours we work, the worse we get at working with other people, making judgment calls, and managing our emotions. We also become less creative: one of the reasons that we so often have eureka moments in the shower is that it’s when we relax that our brains come up with novel ideas. Driving yourself into the ground in order to solve a problem makes you less likely to come up with a solution.
For Carl Honoré, the crunch point came when he found himself in a shop, holding a book of “One Minute Bedtime Stories”. “My life had become an endless race against the clock,” he says. “I was always in a hurry, scrambling to save a minute here, a few seconds there – I was racing through my life rather than living it.” Honoré, the author of “The Slow Fix” and “In Praise of Slow”, now advises companies on how to get better results by slowing down.
Many firms, he says, can see the need to save their employees from themselves. Goldman Sachs now encourages its junior bankers to take Saturdays off. Volkswagen and Puma have experimented with shutting down email servers outside of working hours. At Daimler, they don’t just redirect your messages when you’re on holiday – they actually delete the messages from your inbox, meaning you don’t find yourself facing thousands of unread messages on your return.
MANY FIRMS SEE THE NEED TO SAVE THEIR EMPLOYEES FROM THEMSELVES
Often, the impetus for change comes from the top of the company. In 2007, Arianna Huffington, the hard-charging founder of the Huffington Post, passed out in her office. When she woke up, she found herself covered in blood, having cracked a cheekbone as she fell. The culprit? Exhaustion. “Becoming perpetually depleted,” she says, “had become the new normal. I had forgotten what it felt like to run on a full battery.”
Huffington is now an evangelist for shut-eye: her latest book, “The Sleep Revolution”, focuses on our collective need to get a decent rest. To that end, she has installed “nap rooms” in her company’s offices – they are, she says, “perpetually full”.
Her crusade is gaining traction, she says: “If somebody had told you even a year ago that McKinsey consultants would be writing a piece for the Harvard Business Review saying that the way for executives to be better leaders is to sleep more, and that McKinsey would have a sleep specialist on staff, you would think this was written by The Onion.”
Then there is the spread of mindfulness and meditation – which may be trendy, but are also proven to be effective. At Harvard University, Britta Hölzel and her colleagues found that putting human lab subjects through eight weeks of mindfulness training led to increases in the density of grey matter in those areas of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotional regulation. In another of her studies, a similar programme produced positive structural changes in the amygdala, the seat of our panicked, fight-or-flight responses.
For the advertising agency BBH – named by the Sunday Times as one of the best places in Britain to work – the damascene moment came in 2014, with a talk from Ed Catmull, the head of Pixar. BBH, says Mel Exon, its managing director, was aware that it had a problem with stress – but even more so with the quality of its work: “We felt it was taking a bashing because of the pressure on people to move faster than they’d ever moved before.”
Like Pixar, BBH had a tradition of giving notes – periodic reviews where ongoing projects would be pulled to shreds and rebuilt in better shape. So, following the movie studio’s lead, they decided to “draw breath” – to shut down the firm for a day, and spend it applying the same kind of scrutiny to their own working practices.
Before this “Note Day” the firm’s 450 staff submitted roughly 1,000 ideas about how to change things. By the end of the process, these had been distilled down to 27 concrete changes to their workflow, spread across six areas – including “Mastering Time”.
“We reminded people that we value their input and their output, but we don’t care where they do it or how they do it,” says Exon. “You can work from home, you can work fewer days, you can work in a cafe if that’s what suits you.”
Then there was “maker time” – the institution of a two-hour block of the day without any meetings. “We found that we’d got meeting addiction – we had schedules where you’d have half-hour meetings throughout the day...For me, having those two hours, it’s precious time – I get to think, and write, and walk around the agency rather than just running between meetings.”
“PEOPLE GET EXHAUSTED AND BURNT OUT IF THEY’RE LIVING IN A CLIMATE OF FEAR. TOMORROW, MY TUMBLE DRYER’S GETTING DELIVERED, SO I’M WORKING FROM HOME”
Skyscanner, the British web company, offers classes in sushi-making and home-brewing alongside workplace training. There are breakout spaces, quiet rooms with blankets for napping, walking meetings in the park, table-tennis tables, a meeting room that’s also a putting green.
“When I first joined, I was quite surprised when I was encouraged to leave meetings if I felt there wasn’t any value to me being there – just to get up and leave,” says Ruth Chandler, the firm’s director of talent. The key, she says, is that employees are treated like adults.
“People get exhausted and burnt out if they’re living in a climate of fear,” Chandler adds. “Tomorrow, my tumble dryer’s getting delivered, so I’m working from home. It’s not a problem. I don’t have to worry about whether they’ll deliver on a Saturday, or taking holiday time. I’ve got three kids, and I never miss a sports day or a prize-giving – and there’s no expectation I’ll take holiday for that, because I’ve probably worked later at times as well. It’s that sense of give and take.”
But although flexible working suits Chandler and many others, it does not solve the problem of over-long hours – it just distributes them in a different pattern. Similarly, the Huffington Post and other news organisations still demand immense commitment from their employees – just look at the sheer number of stories that they pump out.
In the media, technology and finance, your value to your company is still overwhelmingly associated with the hours you put in – even if it is those same sectors that are, partly out of necessity, starting to explore alternatives to such a culture. But it is encouraging to see more organisations realise that there are tangible benefits to slowing down the treadmill from time to time. Companies can get more out of their employees if they let them work at speeds that work for them.