It's a jungle out there.
No, not on the unemployment line — but in the office, where scores of American employees are putting in excessive hours because they believe they must in order to keep their jobs.
Burnout first surfaced three decades ago as an issue in the workplace. But in today's fast-paced, tech-driven global economy, many salaried workers are routinely putting in 60, even 80 hours a week in the years since the Great Recession. This is partly because employees feel they have to work longer hours to remain valued, competitive, and on the payroll, and partly because workers are only a cell phone away from the office.
Information technology has helped workers increase productivity, yet with staff cuts to the bone, companies are still squeezing workers, often to the breaking point.
There's new pushback on this — often from cutting-edge tech companies. "It's completely unnecessary — we don't need to put in these excessive hours," says David Heinemeier Hansson, a technology entrepreneur and cofounder of 37signals, a software company based in Chicago. "The culture is the problem. We need to change the tendency toward workaholism for our personal wellbeing and long-term success. Somebody sitting in an office 80 hours a week is seen as a hero. That's got to change."
Working from home may be an easier policy for most technology companies and much harder for companies that require meetings with clients, collaborative brainstorming, and other "hands-on" work.
For Hansson, however, allowing workers to labor offsite helps adjust work/life imbalance issues. He's written a new book, Remote: Office Not Required, together with Jason Fried, and in an interview shared insights on ways workers are harming themselves — and how the problems can be fixed:
1. We're not taking enough vacation time. "All of the major employee issues we've had over the years have come from overwork and a lack of rest."
Hansson says too many employees aren't taking enough time to relax, retool, and rejuvenate. "They end up burning out — then, as a manager, you're left with much larger issues than just a lack of vacation time. In some cases, people need a few months to get back into the swing of things."
Hansson describes the open vacation policy he and other managers use at 37signals, a company of 39 full-time people: "People just need to inform their coworkers about it in advance. That way everyone can accommodate it. We had a bunch of employees who had only taken three or four vacation days all year. It was my job as a manager to individually remind these people to take their vacations for their own benefit."
2. We're adding long commutes to very long days. "If somebody's already working 50, 60, 70 hours a week at the office and they're adding an hour's commute each way onto that, that's an incredibly long work week," says Hansson. "It allows far too little time for the brain to rest and for workers to come up with their best ideas and do their best work."
Hansson warns about "demotivated workers doing less and less topnotch work" if they're too exhausted from demanding commutes on top of packed workdays.
"Even one day a week working from home might help those individuals," he says. "Do all workers at all companies need to be in the office full time week after week? Managers might reevaluate their processes and systems for more employee wellbeing."
3. We're working too fast. Hansson reminds of an old truism that seems newly relevant all over again: "If you want something done quickly, you've got to do it slowly. Otherwise you risk getting sloppy work that's full of errors and has to be redone — and often by more than one person."
Managers aren't getting the best out of their people if they push them too hard on the speed and quickness angles. "We have to specifically fight against this in order to get the best from our people." Sometimes the best work takes more time and consideration than people think, he advises.
4. We're obsessed with face time. Even in 2013, too many managers are using a low-level "caveman style of supervision," says Hansson. "They've been lulled into the belief that if employees are there in person, then managers have a direct line of sight and know their people are working nonstop for eight hours a day."
Hansson says that in today's economy, "It's a terrible way of working." Much better, he says, is building an environment of trust. "Trust the employees you've hired. Trust that they're with you for the right reasons and are interested in doing the best job possible."
He says that in his own work and with the companies he's done business with, "believe me, no one's watching soap operas or playing Playstation all day if they work offsite. People are actually putting in more hours than they otherwise would."
5. We're stuck in Industrial Age attitudes of productivity. "If you could force somebody to work an extra two hours during the Industrial Age, you might get an extra 100 widgets. But today, if you have a knowledge worker sitting in front of a computer or doing other intellectual work, that person's relationship to work is different.
"Putting in more hours does not mean more work comes out," adds Hansson. "In fact, in many professions, whether it's writing, designing, or programming, the best work is not done in 12 hours — it's the best idea that counts."
He advises, "Great ideas come when you're well rested, when you're in an environment of trust, and when you believe in the mission of your job, your company, and your field of endeavor."
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