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Myths of work and rest

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Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer credits her success to working 17-hour days, sleeping under her desk and never taking holidays. She famously took just two weeks’ maternity leave after having her first child.

These are myths of overwork. It’s been shown that after eight hours, your cognitive powers are spent, and Marissa Mayer was in the right place (Google) at the right time.

Bruce Daisley, European Vice-President for Twitter and author of The Joy of Work, says: “In workplace psychology, the big trends are… psychological safety, speaking truth to power and being able to fail… But any time you try to change a culture, you’re faced with the fact that half of all office workers report feeling burned out. People are in a state of overstimulated exhaustion… since email went onto phones, the average working day has gone up by two hours and if you look at people who open emails outside the office, half of them show the highest measurable levels of stress.” [1]

We know that being constantly “on” can lead to stress and burnout. It also withers creativity and can have a huge impact on our relationships with family and friends. In 2018, the total number of days lost to work related stress or depression rose from 3 million to 15.4 million. Overwork is the major reason for sickness at work, with one-in-four of all sick days lost as a direct result of workload. [2]

Creativity doesn’t always come from busyness. Doodling has been shown to increase focus, memory and access creative problem-solving. [3] It can also be used to increase resilience, for example through free or expressive writing, which can provide a pathway to our deepest feelings and enable us to process our emotional responses. [4]

Yet self-defeating myths are everywhere. We “should” work longer hours if we want to get more done. We “should” be filling every hour of every day with activity, or we are being “lazy”, or “skiving”, or “wasting” time.

This conditioning is extremely limiting. If we can understand the myths and belief systems from which we operate, we have more chance of working out if they are serving us or holding us back. Then there is a chance of being freer to decide what we want to believe and how best we can spend our time.

A new movement to bust the myths of work and rest is promoting the benefits of prioritising time out.

Athletes know that rest is vital for recovery. In Daring to Rest Karen Brody writes: “Most self-care today is about activation or doing – exercising, taking a trip with friends, going out to dinner. While this activation may nurture parts of your body, mind, and spirit, it does not deeply replenish your mind and body.

“Giving yourself nonactive time allows not only your physical body the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate, but also your mind. The key feature of rest that distinguishes it from other forms of self-care is that it invites you to step out of your everyday life and dip into your inner world, the space where wonder and creativity flourish and where you can discover a fresh perspective on your everyday life.” [5]

Recreation is not the same as rest.

There are thousands of articles out there about getting a so-called “proper” night’s sleep. Another myth is that we all require eight hours a night – some of us need more, some less, and it will be different at different times. Some people benefit from shorter sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon.

There are more calls to reduce our working week to four days to boost our work-life balance and reduce stress and burnout. Some, like the New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian, have gone to a four-day week for all employees after an eight-week pilot saw a 20 per cent rise in productivity, improved staff wellbeing and an increase in profits. [6]

However, Lynn Cahillane, jobs expert at totaljobs, advises employers that they don’t have to take such extreme measures to help employees with their work-life balance.

“In the shorter term, there are simple ways companies can improve productivity without taking Friday off,” Cahillane said. “This could be as simple as shortening meetings, implementing email blackout periods and encouraging full-hour lunch breaks away from desks.” [7]

[1] Bruce Daisley: “People check their work emails on a night out… they’re lying to themselves”, People Management magazine, 28 Mar 2019

[2] Work related stress depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain, 2018 

[3] The “thinking” benefits of doodling, Harvard Health Publishing, 15 Dec 2016

[4] Speak to Lise to find out more about our Writing for Resilience group.

[5] Karen Brody, Daring to Rest, 2017

[6] Lauren R Brown, Four-day week more productive? The evidence is in…, People Management magazine, 28 Mar 2019

[7] Maggie Baska, Modern technology means four-day working week is in sight, report finds, People Management magazine, 10 Sep 2018